In Austin for the Texas Business Leadership Council's education summit, Bush spoke to the upper chamber's education committee on reforms he implemented in Florida, including voucher programs, mandatory online classes and an A through F school rating system. The committee's chairman, Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has made bringing those kinds of reforms to Texas a top priority for the current legislative session.
"When you have a chance to reform, it ought to be big. You either go big or go home," said Bush, who currently chairs the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national organization he founded after leaving office in 2007 that advocates for virtual learning, charter schools and other policies based on their success in Florida.
He said Florida's A through F school ratings -- which Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams and some lawmakers have proposed enacting in Texas -- had engaged parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. Opening up the public education system by expanding charter schools and providing vouchers for private schools, he said, helped those engaged parents choose the best schools for their children and drive low-performing public schools to improve.
"When you empower the consumer of any service to be on equal footing the supplier that yields a better outcome," he said.
As he urged a large-scale shakeup to the public education system, Bush said it was important to provide proper funding for any changes.
"A lesson we learned is to put money behind the reforms," he said. "If you are going to create tough love policies, then you need to fund them."
Bush also offered his views on the backlash against student testing currently sweeping the state, emphasizing the importance of maintaining high expectations for students. "There is anti-testing sentiment in every state," he said. But he said that "if you don't measure, there's no consequences" for low performance.
While governor of Florida, Bush garnered praise for the gains the state's low-income and minority students made in reading after his first year in office. Since then, critics have raised questions about whether those gains reflected a long-term improvement, and whether it is fair to connect policies currently advanced by Bush's foundation to that success.
The foundation has also been attacked for promoting changes that benefit its corporate donors, which include for-profit education companies Pearson Inc., K12 and McGraw Hill. Speaking to reporters after he testified, Bush addressed that criticism, which he said was being pushed by teachers unions that were about the "economic interests of their members" rather than students.
The foundation welcomed the support of anyone who supported its strategies, he said, but that did not affect the policies it chose to support.
"Our views are our views," he said.
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