MIAMI (AP) — Jeb Bush made his mark as Florida's governor by overhauling the state's schools. As he ponders a potential run for president, his education policies — a likely cornerstone of a White House campaign — are drawing fire from critics who argue they place too much emphasis on testing.
While the landmark education programs retain the strong support of Florida's GOP-led legislature, many superintendents and school boards here are calling on the state to suspend its school grading system, the centerpiece of Bush's overhaul. The state teachers union, among others, also wants to overturn a private school voucher program that lawmakers voted this year to expand.
Bush has also been one of the country's most vocal supporters of academic standards known as Common Core, which have been adopted by a majority of states. That puts him at odds with the conservative activists any GOP presidential hopeful would need to win the party's nomination.
Bush's education foundation gives him a platform from which to defend his education policies. He's speaking at a foundation event Thursday in Washington.
"The secret to education reform is not letting adult angst about ending the status quo interfere with what must be done to advance student achievement," he recently told Education Next, an education policy journal.
Activists in Florida have given Bush a selection of discussion points. Parents, education advocates and policymakers in both parties say some of the measures he enshrined as governor from 1999-2007 have given rise to a culture that values testing over learning and an accountability system that confuses students and teachers.
Superintendents and school board members, meanwhile, are asking the state for a two-year delay in the use of new Common Core-based tests to grade students, teachers and schools. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created the standards to improve academic achievement and increase accountability. The Obama administration embraced them.
"The pendulum swing of accountability is now moving back with equal force and strength," said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Schools and the 2014 national superintendent of the year. He oversees the fourth-largest district in the country.
"It has gone too far, too fast and it has to a certain extent abandoned the transparency and simplicity the state's accountability system used to have," Carvalho said.
In an acknowledgment of the shifting landscape, Bush's education foundation has mounted a public campaign to address the furor over testing, emailing parents and penning opinion articles that call for "fewer tests, better tests and tests that serve a meaningful purpose."
Still, Bush and his allies say testing remains critical, arguing that his accountability program made Florida a national leader in student achievement. They point to record graduation rates and significant gains on national tests. The state ranked fourth in the country in improving fourth-grade reading scores between 2003 and 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Yet, the adult angst is still palpable in Florida, particularly around high-stakes testing, in which students, teachers and schools are rewarded or punished based on scores.
Many schools are scheduled to dedicate on average at least a third of the 180-day school year to standardized testing. Some districts, including populous Miami-Dade, have begun to pare back the number of tests — a move that Bush's foundation supports — while others are in open revolt.
The number of tests "push people over the edge," said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, a standardized test watchdog group. "We're seeing a grassroots rebellion from those closest to the classroom and they are pushing back against what they perceive as policies that come from people who haven't got a clue what's going on."
In response, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican recently re-elected, has ordered the state education commissioner to investigate all mandated exams.
Even some of Bush's supporters say his signature programs need changes after years of additional state and federal mandates. They say that Florida's school grading system, for example, has been altered so many times that it is now an unreliable barometer of student performance. This year a record-setting 178 schools received an "F'' rating — a spike that was triggered in part by a past "safety-net" provision that prevented schools from dropping more than one letter grade a year.
"If people can't understand how students are assessed and how teachers are evaluated, it's not going to work, because people aren't going to trust it," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former school superintendent, self-described "Jeb Bush acolyte" and former state Senate president.
He said that while the tenets of Bush's education program remain sound, "now I'm afraid there are barnacles that have been allowed to grow, slowing it down and could undermine its credibility."
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
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