We shouldn’t march blindly to Jeb Bush’s school agenda

It’s understandable that state Senate Republicans are feeling their oats these days. After watching their bills get quashed in committee for the last eight years, the new Republican-controlled majority is pushing a flurry of bills on its pet issues with unleashed enthusiasm.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except when the agenda appears to be set by national right-wing special interest groups that do not necessarily have the public’s best interest in mind.

A case in point: Senate Republicans seem to have swallowed in one gulp most of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s education reforms. At a recent Early Learning and K-12 Committee hearing, Republican senators proposed holding back third-graders who don’t meet reading standards and the grading of schools on an A to F scale based on test scores.

These are word-for-word proposals from Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a group receiving funds from for-profit education companies, and pushing a national education reform agenda. A Washington Post investigation revealed that these donors are using FEE “to move an education agenda that may or may not be in our interests, but is in theirs.”

Bush’s foundation sounds eerily like the hard-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides legislation templates for conservative state lawmakers. In fact, ALEC and FEE have strong connections.

At least 36 states have already adopted portions of FEE’s agenda. With the help of the Republican-controlled Senate, FEE now hopes to make inroads in Washington.

That’s not inherently objectionable. But those in power have the responsibility to consider the effectiveness of programs they propose. When legislators act as remote-controlled robots for any special interest group, it doesn’t serve the public’s interest.

Reports out of Florida indicate that education reforms enacted when Bush was governor showed short-term gains in some areas, but were not generally effective. For example, Bush left an expansive achievement gap for minority students that the Florida Board of Education says is too big to close over the next six-year period.

As a result, the state education board has abandoned the Bush policies, according to the Palm Beach Post. Other reports have revealed that Florida’s gains came from other factors, perhaps in spite of the Bush mandates.

For example, a constitutional amendment to limit class sizes won approval from Florida voters in 2002. Also, the Bush policies coincided with the pre-recession housing boom, pushing that state’s spending on education up 22 percent from 2001 to 2007.

Studies conducted by Harvard University researchers have shown that the third-grade hold-back program had imperceptible long-term benefit, and no incremental improvement in math or reading scores occurred among the low-income students who got vouchers to attend private schools.

None of that means education reform is unnecessary in Washington. Our schools need to embrace innovation, and no idea should be superficially discarded.

By the same measure, no idea should be accepted on face value.

Washington’s lawmakers should not bow at the agenda of Jeb Bush, FEE, ALEC or the Washington Education Association or any other special interest when considering education reforms.

Lawmakers and the governor should look behind the legislative templates and the talking points the lobbyists provide, to see what actually works and which best practices and programs are relevant to our state’s unique circumstances.