Jeb Bush urges Mississippi to follow Florida on schools

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is urging Mississippi leaders to follow his state’s example on education changes, and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is signaling his support for many of Florida’s approaches.

Bush, a Republican, wants the state to consider higher expectations for students, stronger academic standards, more accountability for schools and options such as charter schools and vouchers. He says such measures worked in Florida.

“I think we’re in a crisis mode,” Bush told a group of Mississippi lawmakers and other officials at the Old Capitol in Jackson. “I think this should be the highest priority for our country.”

Bryant, also a Republican, has said he wants the 2013 legislative session to focus on education improvements. He’s supporting charter schools and a merit pay system for teachers. Bryant says he wants to consider holding back third-graders who aren’t reading on grade level and may want to do the same with underperforming eighth graders.

“What we need to do is create our own legislative package,” Bryant told reporters after the speech. “Much of it is very similar to what Florida has done.”

Mississippi has already adopted some of what Bush is calling for, including an A-to-F grading system for schools and school districts, the national common core academic standards and publicly financed scholarships to private schools for dyslexic students.

Some parts of what Bush described may be hard for Bryant to push through the Legislature. He called for Mississippi to adopt charter schools, to offer tax credit-financed scholarships to private schools for poor students and extolled Florida’s prekindergarten program.

Charter schools failed last year in the Mississippi Legislature and a bill for tax credit-scholarships was not even debated in committee, although leaders have promised new pushes on both.

Bryant’s effort to put child care licensing under the Department of Human Services was defeated amid opposition from child care center owners, and Bryant has said he doesn’t foresee putting any additional state money into child care in the near future. Most public child care money in Mississippi comes from the federal government.

Bryant is also pushing a merit pay proposal. At least one previous effort passed the Legislature but has never met the conditions for implementation.

Bush described a focus on making sure children can read in early grades, starting even before kindergarten, crowned by orders to hold back any third grader who hasn’t mastered reading.

“Far and away, the most important thing is a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time,” Bush said.

He said studies in Florida show that charter schools and other forms of competition help all students, even those who remain in traditional public schools.

“The world doesn’t come to an end,” Bush said of charter schools. “It actually gets a whole lot better when you have choice.”

The former governor, who now heads the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said it’s important to keep raising standards and introducing new improvements.

“That’s what you want to get to is a time of sustained reform, where new ideas come on top of old ones and you keep moving the ball forward,” he said.

The crowd was mostly supportive, but some Democrats challenged Bush in questioning. Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, said he felt like Bush was only talking about positives and not negatives in the Florida experience.

“Is reform controversial?” Bush replied. “You bet it is.”

Bryant and other Republican leaders have been touting changes made to education in not only Florida, but also Louisiana.

Bryant has consulted with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal several times since becoming governor, his schedule shows. In April, Bryant spoke to an organizational meeting for a Mississippi chapter of Maverick PAC, a young Republican committee co-founded by Jeb Bush’s son, George P. Bush.