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Former Gov. Bush On Pandemic-Era Education: Don't Abandon Testing, Accountability

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Mark J. Terrill
Former Governor Jeb Bush is weighing in on the educational impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Florida education officials canceled state exams this spring as public schools shifted abruptly online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush doesn’t want to see that happen again. He argued state testing is crucial to make sure students are receiving an equitable education, regardless of their families' income.

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“If we excuse away the achievement gap and say it's not fair to test, then you're going to see a going back to a system where we had low expectations for low-income kids. And I will not be a party to that,” Bush said during a virtual panel discussion Thursday. “I will do whatever I can to make sure that we do not abandon accountability.”

Bush, a former two-term Republican governor who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, is the architect of Florida’s two-decade-old school accountability system. The system includes a controversial formula that uses student test scores to evaluate schools’ performance on an A-to-F scale. He also pioneered the law that requires third graders to pass a state reading test to move on to fourth grade, with some exceptions.

The Florida Education Association — a statewide union that has challenged Bush's education reform polices in court and been a longtime Bush foe — has already called on the state Department of Education to suspend testing, teacher performance evaluations and school grades for the upcoming academic year.

Bush's appearance Thursday was part of the National Charter Schools Conference. Bush is a major national advocate for charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, as well as other alternatives to traditional public education.

Upon leaving office in 2007, Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a powerful advocacy group that promotes accountability as well as school choice policies nationally. A related statewide organization called the Foundation for Florida’s Future has worked in Tallahassee to keep Bush’s education legacy intact.

Bush’s foundations have also supported educational models where students advance at their own pace. During Thursday’s panel, Bush said the pandemic has created an opportunity to explore further individualization of students’ education.

Online learning could allow some students to move on to more advanced coursework while others get extra help, he said.

“We focus a lot on lower performing students — as we should. It is hugely important that these learning gaps are erased. It should be a national priority for our country. But we also hold back kids that could be learning at a more accelerated rate,” he said.

Bush expressed frustration that some school districts throughout the country struggled with the transition to online learning. He said education leaders need to solve problems more quickly and keep moving forward.

“What we need to start is having a bias towards action rather than paralysis,” he said, adding that the nation should be innovating rather than staying "in the corner in the fetal position.”

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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