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Jackson, meet Tallahassee. As a new legislative session heavily focused on education issues begins in Mississippi’s capital, much of its inspiration will come from Florida.
In 1999, the Sunshine State began a series of school reforms under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Supporters cite those actions as having a dramatic effect on improving the state’s schools. Critics caution the picture is much more complex.
As their debate continues, Bush now heads a foundation that seeks to spread his ideas to other states, and Mississippi is among those browsing the menu.
He spoke to lawmakers in August, and his Foundation for Excellence in Education has made several trips to the state. It is providing input to a Department of Education committee tweaking the way Mississippi’s schools are rated.
FEE National Director of Policy Mary Laura Bragg addressed House and Senate education committee members last month.
“One thing that is very clear and very definite is we cannot continue to do business the way we have been doing it the last few years,” said Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, chairman of the Mississippi House Education Committee. “We need to get outside the box and look at what other states are doing and jump on the train.”
Florida is the origin of many of the reforms cited this year by Mississippi legislators – charter schools, scholarships to private schools, requiring third-graders to read at a certain level before they can advance and giving teachers performance bonuses.
In fact, Mississippi passed its first Jeb Bush reform last spring when it changed the state’s school-ranking system from a seven-tiered model that labeled schools from “Star” to “Failing” to one that uses letter grades “A” through “F.” The state is one of 27 with whom the FEE has worked since its 2008 inception.
“The ‘A’ through ‘F’ system is really what kicked this reform movement off in Florida,” said the FEE’s Bragg, a Mississippi native who worked on Bush’s staff when he was governor. “When states talk about the Florida model, they have the advantage in being able to look at all of the reforms that led to student achievement.
“We did not roll out every one of the reforms in the governor’s first year. Reform is never finished.”
The so-called “Florida model” has five components: holding schools accountable for results, increasing standards for students, rewarding success, increasing school choice and making it easier for teachers to be certified.
Shortly after his 1998 gubernatorial election, Bush pledged education would be his top priority until “we can honestly say our system no longer leaves any child behind.”
He quickly pushed for a series of reforms, many of which happened simultaneously. Among them:
• Giving cash rewards to schools that earned an “A” or improved their letter grade.
• Allowing children in fail-ing schools to transfer to better ones.
• Preventing third-grad-ers who failed the state reading test to advance to fourth grade and providing supports to help schools better teach literacy.
• Raising the standards of the high school graduation exam.
• Training teachers in C, D and F schools to teach more Advanced Placement courses.
• Allowing alternate routes to teacher certification
Since beginning those reforms, Florida has seen significant gains in academic achievement. Specifically, its fourth-grade reading scores have risen dramatically on a national standardized test often referred to as the “national report card.”
In 1998, Florida’s 207 average on that fourth-grade reading test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, trailed the national average of 215. Only Louisiana and Hawaii scored significantly lower. In 2011, Florida’s 225 average bests the nation’s 220 mark. Only four other states scored significantly higher.
On another test, the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Florida’s fourth-grade students scored as well as the highest-performing nations – Hong Kong, Finland, the Russian Federation and Singapore.
“If you look at the results, it is obvious Florida has had significant success with the reforms they’ve made in 1999 and since then,” said Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative-leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
Since 2003, Florida has made the largest gains on the NAEP for students with disabilities, the third-highest for low-income students and the fourth-highest for black students, according to FEE. The organization touts Florida’s “education transformation” as “perhaps the greatest public policy success story of the past decade.”
“When you start any reform with the belief all children can learn and you require schools reach the needs of all children, it is amazing what can happen,” Bragg said. “There is enough research out there about the best way to teach kids how to read, and we rolled up our sleeves to make sure kids don’t leave third grade destined to fail.”
What the foundation does not tout, however, are other reforms that also occurred in Florida during the same period. In 2002, the state’s voters passed a constitutional amendment that limits class size. The change was phased in. By the 2010-11 school year, the largest allowed class sizes are 18 students in pre-K through third grade, 22 in fourth grade through eighth-grade and 25 in high school.
The state also greatly expanded its pre-K programs with a 2005 state law that gave parents vouchers to use on child care facilities that agreed to follow certain state standards.
Finally, many of the state’s gains came during a time when it was lush with property tax revenue, thanks to a boom in its housing market. In fact, Florida’ fourth-grade reading NAEP score has remained flat since 2007 (students take the test every two years).
Florida has made gains on its overall graduation rate despite increasing its requirements, but the state’s 71 percent rank in 2010-11 was better than only five states. It trailed Mississippi’s 75 percent rate.
Many are also leery of FEE’s funding sources, as the foundation works to transport the Florida model. They question whether the foundation is advocating for changes that will benefit its benefactors.
Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said “90 percent of the foundation’s budget comes from family foundations or philanthropic organizations dedicated to improving students’ educational success.
“We advocate for policies that benefit students, not the interests of one particular non-profit or private entity,” she said.
The foundation notes the 10 percent that comes from for-profits does not pay salaries but is used to put on the organization’s national summit.
Nancy Loome, executive director of Mississippi’s The Parents’ Campaign, notes that many of the non-profits still have an agenda to push for privatization of schools and virtual charter schools. Funders include the Walton Foundation, Charter Schools USA, K12 and e2020, among others. K12 and e2020 are both connected to and profit from virtual charter schools, those that allow students to take many or all of their classes via the Internet.
In fact, the foundation’s support of virtual schools has drawn criticism.
Sherman Dorn, University of South Florida professor of education, told Reuters news service that while some of Bush’s initiatives made a real difference in the state, his advocacy for cyber schools was “throwing away whatever credibility he had coming out of Florida.”
Bragg said FEE does have model bills states can use, but it does not lobby. Those bills are based on experiences both from Florida and from other states, she said.
When she spoke to Mississippi’s legislative education committees in December, she was there to talk about Florida’s experience, not to lobby, she said.
“I was only there to tell my experience about the program in Florida,” she said. “We go at the request of the governor or Department of Education to share what we did in Florida.”
Click here for Reading initiative tops Florida import list
Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida enacted several educational reforms. Those included:
• Grading schools using an A to F grading scale
• Requiring students to take annual tests in reading and math
• Giving cash rewards to schools that earned an A or improved a letter grade
• Offering children in failing schools opportunity to transfer to a better-performing school
• Not allowing students who fail the third-grade state reading test to advance to fourth grade
• Providing professional development to all K-3 teachers and literacy coaches to all elementary schools
• Raising standards of the high school graduation exam
• Providing funding for all sophomores to take PSAT or equivalent PLAN exam
• Training teachers in low-performing schools to teach more Advanced Placement courses.
• Providing bonuses to teachers for students who pass AP exams
• Creating two private-school scholarship programs: McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
• Allowing alternative routes to teacher certification
• Limiting class size
• Providing vouchers for children to attend childcare facilities that agreed to meet certain state standards.
TEST SCORE GAINS:
Florida’s average fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test have risen over the past decade. That test is regarded as the national report card. The national average is listed in parenthesis.
1992: 208 (215)
1994: 205 (212)
1998: 207 (215)
2002: 214 (217)
2003: 218 (216)
2005: 219 (217)
2007: 224 (220)
2009: 226 (220)
2011: 225 (220)