Advice for Education Reformers: Be Bold! A Conversation with Jeb Bush

Article excerpt

The question was one that would have sent many white politicians scurrying for cover. And it was clearly a question that the group of visiting state legislators from North Carolina, half of them African American, had discussed in advance. After all, they had come to Miami, thanks to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a Raleigh-based school-reform organization, for a two-day event hosted by Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), to get advice about education reform, and they didn't want to embarrass the host. But it had to be done.

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"With all due respect, Governor," the black man started, a bit hesitantly. "How do you convince African Americans that they can trust a white man? A Bush?"

The former two-term governor of Florida and a 2012 presidential hopeful for many Republican Party stalwarts (Bush endorsed Mitt Romney on March 21) listened carefully, smiling at the allusion to his blue-blood family reputation--and white skin. Bush had taken his suit coat off at the beginning of the luncheon and engaged in easy banter with the visitors while noshing on a chicken-salad sandwich.

"It's a common concern across the policy spectrum," he said, "and not just in education." The 58-year-old Bush, son of one president and brother of another, proceeded to tell the story of his opening the first charter school in Florida, in 1996. (He did not mention that the charter law was one he had helped push through the legislature.) "I teamed up with Willard Fair, whom I'm sure many of you know, and we started a charter school." Fair is a black activist and head of the Urban League of Greater Miami. And most everybody knew something about the Liberty City Charter School, named after one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods and scene (in 1980) of the worst race riots since the 1960s.

"We worked at it," says Bush. "We had to build it first and we were sweeping floors together," he told his guests. "We had 90 kids in K through 2--little dudes. We had to get the uniforms. It was an amazing experience. And this was Friday before the Monday we were supposed to open. I was walking out, it was maybe four o'clock, and it dawned on me that we didn't have a flagpole. If we're going to be a first-class school, we've got to have a flagpole. You've got to have the Pledge of Allegiance when the school opens. So it extended my workweek. We ended up getting the flagpole, buying the flag. And at seven thirty in the morning, when school was supposed to start, we had a little 3rd grader or 2nd grader do the Pledge with all these kids in uniforms with moms and dads and teachers. It was something else. Willard and I were close--we still are. I kid him: he's my brother by another mother."

The room melted. Sweeping floors? At a school for poor African Americans? Brother by another mother? This guy was the real deal.

The Florida Miracle

Florida students under Jeb Bush made some remarkable progress (see "Florida Defeats the Skeptics," check the facts, page 64). Florida was the first state to start grading its schools, A to F, based on student performance; it stopped social promotion in 3rd grade; it paid teachers more if their students performed better; it gave parents more choice, with vouchers and charters; and it revamped the teacher certification process to let more people into the pool.

If you ask Bush the secret to his education reform success, he'll say "hard work." But one of the surprising pieces of advice Bush passes on to would-be education reformers is to "be bold." One might think, for a governor who managed to get so much education reform passed in his state, that he would have suggested a more pragmatic, at least, incremental, approach.

"On the big things you've got to be impatient and you can't accept compromise," he insists. "You can accept consensus, but you can't accept compromise, particularly if compromise yields mediocre results. …