Did Jeb Bush’s Education Reforms Work in Florida?

One of the positive points of a potential Jeb Bush presidential candidacy is that he has some claim to success as governor of Florida, particularly with regard to education.

Some of his education reforms (support for school privatization and more accountability) are unpopular among liberals. Some (particularly Common Core) are unpopular with conservatives. But at least he can claim to be actually moderate.

What’s more, according to this article at Newsweek his reforms don’t seem so bad:

While Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, the state “made dramatic improvements in the academic outcomes of all its students,” a report from The Heritage Foundation concluded in 2010.

It said Florida also made “significant progress” in narrowing the nationwide achievement gap in grades K-12 between white students and minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

Being able to boost an achievement record like this is objectively impressive. Jeb Bush is right to highlight his success.

And the state’s students went on to make the strongest gains in the nation on a test known as NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, since 2003, the first year that all 50 states used the exam.

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But one of the problems here, as far as education for the nation as a whole goes, is that we don’t really know why the governor was so successful.

The Heritage report cited above “credited parental choice, higher standards, and both accountability and flexibility” as the reasons for the higher achievement, but that’s not really clear. Florida, for instance, also got a lot richer during the same period. Nor is it clear which of those reform strategies (the total package was called the A + Plan) mattered most.

Critics argue he presents the whole package as part of a necessary reform strategies for all states because there just isn’t evidence of success for any particular strategy. His plan is pitched through his nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is curiously connected to various companies that make a lot of money through education reform.

But the evidence isn’t bad. There’s nothing to indicate that anything got worse while he was governor. There’s reason to question how much his reforms mattered and what might be most effective for the country, but the state posted gains beyond those of other states. And that’s a valid standard to use when evaluating a candidate.

Let’s keep this in mind as he proceeds along the path to the nomination. He’s going to have critics poking holes in his education record, as is entirely appropriate. But he was governor of Florida some 8 years ago. If any of the success he touts was a lie we would probably know about it by now.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer