ICAS Special Contribution

No. 99-923-JEB

 An A+ Plan for Education 


Jeb Bush

September 23, 1999.

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS, of the testimony of The Hon. Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, before House Committee on the Budget, U. S. House of Representatives, Washington, D. C., September 23, 1999. sjk]


An A+ Plan for Education

The Hon. Jeb Bush
Governor of Florida

Good morning Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. This is my first time addressing a Committee of the United States Congress as Florida's governor, and I am grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to discuss Florida's educational reform efforts with you.

You have no doubt heard much about Florida's recent educational reforms, and depending on the source of your information, some of what you've heard may even be true.

In the short time that I have before you, I would like to briefly describe some of the important elements of the education reform plan that we adopted in Florida this year, then discuss some of the dramatic efforts being taken by the dedicated educators throughout our state to improve student achievement. I'd like to conclude by discussing the ways we believe the federal government can best help us in our efforts to provide a high-quality education to every child in Florida.

The Good News and the Bad

When I took office as Florida's Governor in January, the news on the educational front was both good and bad.

The good news was that Florida was moving in the direction of high standards, rigorous assessment and true accountability.

Florida had adopted a rigorous set of standards known as the Sunshine State Standards. These standards tell us what students should know and be able to do from kindergarten through high school. Florida had also established a school evaluation system that was tied to these standards, and we had established a test, the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the "FCAT," that was specifically designed to test these standards.

However, there was also some bad news. Shortly after I took office, it was announced that Florida's high school graduation rate was an astonishing 52 percent. Fifty percent of Florida's fourth graders were not able to read at the fourth grade level. And, a survey showed that over one-third of Florida's ninth graders, or about 60,000 ninth graders, had a D or F average. And despite this fact, Florida, like many states, was still clinging to the notion of "social promotion," - a feel-good idea that was setting up tens of thousands of Florida children for ultimate and tragic failure.

In that context, Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan and I proposed and fought for legislative approval of the Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for Education.

The Principles of the A+ Plan

The A+ Plan is built upon the foundation of three fundamental principals. The first principle is meaningful and undiluted accountability - there must be different consequences between success and failure.

The second principle is zero tolerance for failure, and the honesty and the courage to point it out where it exists. Too often, there can be political or institutional reluctance to identify "failure." Although this can be extremely difficult and painful, it becomes much easier when one realizes that a loss of courage to identify failure results in sacrificing children and their futures merely to protect the "system."

This leads to our third principle. We zealously believe that our educational system must be child-centered, not system-centered or even school-centered. The educational universe should revolve around the individual educational needs of each and every child, not the other way around.

We have weaved these three fundamental principles throughout the A+ Plan.

The Elements of the A+ Plan

Assess annual student learning against high standards. First, in order to more accurately assess student learning and to better determine how well Florida's students were achieving the learning benchmarks set forth in the Sunshine State Standards, we're expanding the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test so that all third through tenth graders will take it, not just fourth, fifth, eighth, and tenth graders. To demonstrate the rigor of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, I have included sample questions from the tenth grade FCAT with my written testimony.

Earlier this year, Education Week magazine rated each state's educational standards and assessment methods in its "Quality Counts '99" report. I'm proud that Florida was given a grade of "A minus," and was ranked among the top five states in this category. With Florida's adoption of the A+ Plan this year, I am confident that Florida's ranking will climb even closer to number one in next year's review. For the record, I've included a copy of the Quality Counts '99 state rankings.

Clearly communicate school performance to everyone. Second, in order to clearly identify to parents, teachers and community leaders which schools are performing and which are not, we changed the terminology for grading Florida's schools from a "1" through "5" grading scale to an "A" through "F" grading scale. We are also sending the school report cards home to parents and posting them on the Internet.

I am especially proud of the fact that our grading system sets one standard for all students, regardless of their race, regardless of their family income levels, and regardless of their ethnicity-every single student and every single school will be held to uniformly high standards.

Reward high performing and improving schools. Third, schools that move up a grade and schools that receive an A grade are directly receiving a bonus of $100 per student to spend as each school sees fit. In fact, next week we will be distributing $30 million to Florida's high performing and improving schools with no strings attached as a reward for their exceptional performance.

Assist low performing schools. Fourth, to quickly turn around low-performing schools, schools that receive grades of D or F are required to develop a school improvement plan specifically tailored to address the particular needs of each school. These schools will also receive technical and financial assistance from their local school districts and the state.

Provide alternatives to children in chronically failing schools. Fifth and finally, if a school receives an F grade in two of the last four years, children in those chronically failing schools will be given alternative educational choices through an Opportunity Scholarship. The Scholarships will allow these students to obtain a quality education at a better-performing public school or the private school of their choice.

Opportunity Scholarships

Here's how our Opportunity Scholarship program works. Private schools that accept students using Opportunity Scholarships must accept the value of the Scholarships as full tuition, must meet applicable health and safety standards, and must accept students using Opportunity Scholarships on a random basis. Students using Opportunity Scholarships to attend a private school will still be required to take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test and the Florida Writes! test so we can continue to evaluate their academic progress.

When the state Department of Education issued grades for Florida's public schools in June, 78 public schools in Florida received an F grade, and over 600 schools received a grade of D. In terms of students, this meant that 508,000 students were attending D schools, and 61,000 were attending F Schools.

Because they had been previously identified as critically low-performing schools, students at two Pensacola elementary schools that received F's this year became eligible to receive Opportunity Scholarships.

In total, 134 children left these two public schools to attend other schools. Seventy-six left to attend a better-performing public school, and 58 left to attend five participating private schools that included four parochial schools and one Montessori school.

Debunking the Myths About Opportunity Scholarships

In the weeks that these children have been using Opportunity Scholarships, many myths about the Scholarships have been destroyed.

The "skimming" myth. One of the often-repeated myths we heard during the legislative debate was that providing students in chronically failing schools with alternative educational choices would result in "brain-drain" or "skimming" of the best students from the failing schools, resulting in a disproportionate number of quote-unquote "hard-to-educate" kids being left behind. Data released last week from these two elementary schools in Pensacola squarely contradicts that myth. When school officials looked at the academic history of the children who used Opportunity Scholarships, roughly even numbers of high-performing and low-performing students chose to attend other schools using Opportunity Scholarships.

The "elitist conspiracy" myth. Another myth that has been destroyed is what I call the "elitist conspiracy" myth. Those that repeated this myth said that Opportunity Scholarships would mainly benefit and be used by children from suburban, white, higher-income families. Shortly after school report cards went out this summer, we looked at the racial and economic breakdown of F schools, and this myth was quickly destroyed. Of the 61,000 students in F schools, 85 percent are minorities -- 63 percent, or 38,430 are African American children, and 20 percent, or 12,200 are Hispanic children. Furthermore, of all students attending Florida's F schools, 81 percent of them participate in the free and reduced school lunch program.

Not only do these statistics debunk the "elitist conspiracy" myth, they powerfully underscore the urgent moral imperative we face in ensuring that each of these children receives the opportunity to gain the life-long benefits of a high quality education. In light of these statistics, it's not hard to understand why Florida's Opportunity Scholarship Program has received the endorsement and support of African American state legislators in Florida, the Urban League of Greater Miami, and most recently, civil rights leader and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young.

The "abandonment" myth. The other myth that was destroyed was the myth that Opportunity Scholarships would lead to the "abandonment" of the children "left behind" in the failing schools.

I wish that every Member of this Committee could have attended the Florida State Board of Education meeting in June when local school officials presented school improvement plans for these two chronically failing schools. The list of reforms being initiated at these schools by local officials was truly impressive in substance and in scope:

  • More after-school and Saturday tutorials,

  • A reduction in the teacher-student ratio,

  • A lengthened school year from 180 to 210 days, and

  • Blocks of time that are specifically dedicated to traditional core subjects -- reading, writing and mathematics.

So principals would have the authority they need to improve the educational environment, local school officials gave the two principals the ability to hire or transfer any person working in the school.

And, in order to reduce the high turnover rate of students in these schools, the school district has now agreed to provide transportation to any student who moves but wishes to continue attending either elementary school.

The state of Florida has also committed more resources to quickly turn these schools around. The Department of Education is providing more money, including grants totaling $87,000, for basic skills programs to help improve learning in the areas where it is needed most: reading, writing and mathematics.

Witnessing the remarkable changes planned for these two schools had a powerful effect on Florida's Attorney General Bob Butterworth, one of the state's highest-ranking elected Democrats. Although General Butterworth had previously opposed Opportunity Scholarships, shortly after he witnessed the dramatic efforts being made to improve the quality of education at the two Pensacola schools, he announced his support of Opportunity Scholarships, because he believed that they were responsible for sparking the improvements at these schools.

So while it is very early in the implementation of the A+ Plan, many of the worst fears about Opportunity Scholarships have failed to materialize, and in fact, we have turned skeptics into supporters along the way.

Educational Improvement Sparked by the A+ Plan

And beyond Pensacola, it has been inspiring to witness the changes taking place all across our state by Florida's dedicated educators in response to the accountability measures of the A+ Plan.

  • In Martin County on Florida's southeastern coast, for example, school officials are providing teachers at two low-performing schools with ten extra days of additional training to help them teach students basic skills. Also, teachers at low-performing schools will receive a $1,000 bonus for raising the performance of their students.

  • In Jacksonville, low-performing schools will now have summer and after-school programs to focus on improving reading, writing, and math skills.

  • School officials in Ocala are hiring additional teachers to reduce class sizes and the school superintendent has called for more teacher training and development of parent-community activities.

  • School officials in Broward County, the nation's fifth largest school district, are spending millions of dollars to reduce first-grade class sizes to 18 - 20 students per class in 104 low-performing schools. An associate superintendent told the local newspaper, "Contrary to public opinion, the schools have really been energized by this grading system. They are determined to improve their scores."

  • In the Tampa area, Hillsborough County school superintendent Earl Lennard made statewide news recently when he vowed to take a 5 percent pay cut, or a personal loss of $8,250, if any school in Hillsborough County receives an F grade. To meet this high expectation, Lennard promised his schools the support they need, including reduced class sizes for select "D" schools and money for after-school or Saturday tutoring at all schools. This pledge prompted one Hillsborough schoolteacher to remark, "I've seen principals eat worms. I've seen vice principals kiss pigs to get students to read a certain number of pages, but I have never seen a superintendent put his salary on the line." At least not until the A+ Plan.

  • In Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest school district in the nation, school officials are increasing intensive math and reading instruction at schools receiving low grades, and are hiring 210 additional teachers to work at the 26 schools that received F grades. Elementary school students in Miami-Dade County will see their class sizes shrink, in some cases by half!

Keep in mind, that in each of these cases, local school officials -- not state officials and not federal officials -- are implementing the various reforms that they believe will work best in their schools. As a state, we have simply set up an accountability system that is child-centered and standards-based. We have injected our educational system with the catalytic mechanisms needed to give every educator at every school real incentives to see that every child gains the power of knowledge.

Future Goals of the A+ Plan

So I am excited and hopeful about the educational renaissance that is beginning to take place throughout Florida, and in future years, as we continue to implement the entirety of the A+ Plan, we expect to see even greater benefits.

Eliminate "social promotion" and increase funding for remediation efforts. One goal in particular that we hope to achieve is the complete elimination of social promotion. Based on a preliminary survey, Florida's school districts are in the process of revising their Pupil Progression Plans as a result of the A+ Plan. The term "administrative placement" is being removed from these plans, and performance criteria are providing the basis for promotion.

We've provided $527 million in flexible funds for local school districts to use to help provide remediation so that students can get the help they need to be promoted to the next grade with proficiency at their grade level. School districts are using these flexible funds to implement a variety of approaches: some are hiring additional teachers and reducing class sizes, others are funding after-school programs and tutoring, some are purchasing additional materials and supplies, others are providing intensive reading instructive, and others are capping class sizes in algebra. Each school district is doing what it believes is best.

A year's worth of knowledge in a year's time. The other significant change we expect to see in the future is having the capability to determine whether children are learning a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time.

Once we begin testing all third through tenth graders, we will be able to measure each student's annual progress against the Sunshine State standards. With this information, our state's grading system will ultimately be based on students meeting high standards as well as each student's annual progress.

Leave no child behind. There's another element of the A+ Plan's new grading system that I am proud of: our commitment to ensure that no child is left behind. The A+ Plan's new grading system, which we will be implementing during the next two years, will take into account the performance of the lowest performing 25 percent of students in Florida. Schools will not be able to attain high grades by simply focusing their efforts on the top three-quarters of students in the state. Our future grading system will ensure that Florida's educators focus attention on the bottom quartile of the state's students.

Continue tearing down barriers to learning. Ultimately, we hope to tear down the barriers and the obstacles to student achievement, and make Florida's educational system truly aligned and obsessively focused solely on student learning. Once the barriers come down, educators, parents and community leaders alike will be inspired to prove that every child can learn. When Hillsborough County School superintendent put his salary on the line and voluntarily risked a five percent pay cut to guarantee that no school in his district would receive an F grade, Tampa businessman Dave Marshall made a similar pledge. Because Marshall's alma mater, Oak Grove Middle School, had received a D, he pledged to give up five percent of his own salary and donate it to the fundraising branch of the school district if Oak Grove went down to an F. Marshall then recruited ten co-workers from his company to tutor eighth grade students at the school for one hour each week. And this is only one example of what can be achieved if we continue to increase accountability and remove barriers to student learning.

Mentoring Initiative. To encourage more adult and community involvement in the lives of Florida's children, last month I was joined by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to kick off my Mentoring Initiative. Since taking office last January, I have spent one hour per week at Augusta Raa Middle School in Tallahassee mentoring a student, and we're hoping to recruit 200,000 mentors across Florida to get engaged in the lives of our state's children. This initiative will bring together non-profit groups, state agencies, businesses, communities of faith, schools, and others from around the state in a partnership designed to help students excel, both in and out of school. We are also changing the state personnel policy to allow state employees to devote one hour a week, or four hours a month to mentor Florida's young people.

The Federal Role in Education

So we have much work to do as we continue to implement this comprehensive reform plan that will bring Florida's educational system into the 21st century. While we have begun to do all we can to make Florida's educational system performance-based and child-centered, seven percent of our budget is regulation-based and system-centered, and that's the federal portion of our education budget.

I am here to fully support the principles behind the Academic Achievement for All Act, or "Straight A's Act."

States like Florida that are moving toward a truly accountable, performance-based and child-centered system should be given regulatory and funding flexibility to achieve their academic goals. It's time to move away from the Washington-knows-best model, and allow states that are willing to meet stringent performance goals to have more flexibility.

The current federal approach is still based on a model that was designed in the 20th century, and states like Florida are blazing forward with 21st century educational approaches. Through charter schools, charter districts, and performance contracts, we're finding ways to hold schools accountable with much less process.

Right now, federal programs have lots of process, and little or no accountability.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Though the federal contribution to education in Florida is small, only about seven percent of total spending, it takes more than 40 percent of the state's education staff to oversee and administer federal dollars. In fact, in Florida, six times as many people are required to administer a federal education dollar as are required by a state dollar. And how much learning has the federal government achieved through these expenditures? No one knows.

Imagine what our states could do if we could spend more of our time and energy working to improve student achievement, rather than tediously complying with a dizzying array of federal rules. At the very least, the federal government should stop creating barriers for states that are taking new educational approaches.

Because the A+ Plan's accountability measures are so potent, I believe that once fully implemented, the A+ Plan may do more good to help low-income children in low-performing schools in five years than the Title I program has done in our state in 35 years. Without legislation like the Straight A's Act, Florida will not be able to use federal funds to fully support our reform efforts. But with the Straight A's Act, Florida's school districts could use federal funds to support their accountability-driven efforts, in the manner they believe best to address their local solutions, whether those solutions are more technology, smaller class sizes, a longer school year, or individual tutoring.

The federal government should welcome states that are willing to trade flexibility for strict performance standards. As a state, we are welcoming school districts that are willing to meet strict performance standards in exchange for flexibility from state rules.

As a matter of fact, a few months ago, before Florida's legislative session, I was visiting an elementary school in Tampa, and the district superintendent and I were talking about the many regulations that the state imposes on its local school districts.

Having previously founded a charter school with the Urban League of Greater Miami in 1995, I knew that the state's charter school law allowed certain schools to operate free of district regulations if the charter school agreed to meet certain student performance criteria. As the superintendent and I talked, I asked whether he would be interested in becoming the state's first "charter district" - a school district that would agree to achieve certain performance goals in exchange for regulatory flexibility from the state.

Despite the fact that no law on the books permitted the creation of a "charter district," we eagerly discussed the idea, and within two months, passed legislation that allows for charter school districts. Within the next month, we expect to receive applications from six school districts in our state wishing to become the first charter districts.

In a similar vein, I have come here to offer you more accountability from Florida, in exchange for more flexibility. We can increase the impact that federal dollars will have on student learning in our state, if we are provided with more freedom and less one-size-fits-all regulations from the federal government. I sincerely hope that Congress will pass the Straight A's Act so Florida can become the first education "charter state."

I thank you for the privilege of speaking before the Committee today.

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