As son prepares Texas campaign, Jeb Bush touts school choice at Capitol
Posted on February 27, 2013 at 7:32 PM
Updated Wednesday, Feb 27 at 7:41 PM
AUSTIN -- Inside the Texas Senate Chamber, a familiar face to Republicans had tough words for struggling schools across the nation.
"The simple fact is fewer and fewer kids living in poverty can break through that today than a generation ago," former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. "And that is a tragedy that can only be solved by having an education system that's for all kids."
Testifying in regard to reforms enacted under his administration as Florida's governor, Bush said private school vouchers, expanding charter schools and ending social promotion under his watch helped turn failing Florida schools around.
"It has been, I think, the catalytic converter, if you will, of the kind of learning gains that we've experienced," Bush told media afterwards. "It really has created a sense of urgency that if parents are given other choices than the failed options that they're forced to have, then those failed options get better pretty quick. What we've found in Florida is with the largest private and public school choice programs probably in the country, that public schools have gotten better."
Many state Republicans including Senate Education Chair state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) are pushing for similar school choice legislation in Texas, but public education advocates disagree on whether a model based on competition between public and private schools would best serve the vast majority of children who will regardless remain in the public school system.
"The backbone of our society is a free public school system open to our comers," said Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association. "Public schools take every child who lives in their area that enrolls. Private schools can cherry pick. They don't have to take kids with high needs. They don't have to take kids who are struggling to speak English."
Under Bush's leadership, Florida schools were assigned letter ratings based on performance, an idea proposed by lawmakers such as Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-TX) in Texas. Along with performance-based bonuses for teachers and money incentives for those working in under served areas or subjects, Bush credits the package of reforms with improving test grades and graduation rates across the state.
"The alleged education miracle in Florida is not a miracle, it's a mixed bag," argued Robison. "Remedial testing is still very high for high school graduates, they're still taking a lot of remedial courses in college. Their graduation rate is not stellar. The private school vouchers, the kids that get those, studies have shown that the low income children scored no better on math and reading tests than their peers in the public schools."
In his testimony, Bush dismissed the idea that high-stakes testing put undue strain on students and teachers in Florida.
"The minute there's no consequence, human nature is what it is. You're not putting the same kind of priority that you would if there's a consequence," Bush said. "There is anti-testing sentiment in every state. There's no question that that's the case. What I do know is that if you don't measure and there's no consequence, you're not going to get the kind of results you want."
Suggesting the different proposals concerning expanding charter schools and providing private school vouchers or voucher alternatives misses the larger problem facing Texas schools, Robison says teachers and parents won't be distracted from the debate over funding.
"The teachers in Texas are more concerned about the legislature restoring the $5.4 billion in money that was cut from the public schools last session that have resulted in thousands of school children being taught in overcrowded classrooms," said Robison. "Their learning opportunities are diminished. Their textbooks are outdated, and they find themselves still struggling with the high-stakes standardized tests that Governor Bush endorses and which needs to be eliminated or at least drastically cut back."
With his son and Hispanic Republicans of Texas founder George P. Bush raising money and a statewide profile in preparation for a yet-to-be-announced political campaign in Texas, the father from Florida supplied no spoilers Wednesday.
"I don't know what he's running for. I'll let him make that announcement," Bush said. "But I'm very proud of him. He's worked hard to support a lot of really worthy causes and support candidates. I think he's earned a chance to aspire to serve."
The son of the 41st and brother of the 43rd American president, Bush himself has been mentioned in talks of a potential presidential run in 2016. While not ruling it out, he emphasized he is reluctant to make any decision.
"I haven't," Bush said. "And I'm forcing myself not to. I'm really trying hard not to have to go through that decision because it's way too early."
Whether through election or legislation, another Bush family is nonetheless poised to leave a mark on Texas.