Bush takes plan national

The former governor has created a foundation that will push his brand of education reform.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008

Jeb Bush is taking his brand of education reform nationwide.

The former Florida governor announced a new education foundation Tuesday that will give him a new vehicle for protecting his political legacy and aims in part to push some of Florida's accountability programs onto a national stage.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education has already scheduled a national education summit for June in Orlando, and it is putting together a new program to reward Florida teachers whose students make big gains in reading and math.

It is also backed by a handful of powerful corporations and staffed by some of Bush's closest political advisers, including Patricia Levesque, who helped guide education policy while Bush was governor.

Bush could not be reached for comment, but a press release said the foundation would "create and manage programs to improve the quality of education in classrooms across Florida and the nation."

"A quality education can change a life," Bush said in the release.

Not everyone was impressed.

Replicating Bush's education programs would be a disaster, said state Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, the ranking member of the House K-12 committee. "What we're doing in Florida, virtually no parent likes it."

During his two terms as governor, Bush brought dramatic change to Florida schools, using the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to measure student progress, grade schools and award teacher bonuses. He also pushed for creation of charter schools and passionately supported use of vouchers for private schools.

Eight years later, many of Bush's initiatives remain unpopular with parents and teachers, even as some academic indicators show progress. Last week, a report by highly regarded Education Week magazine found Florida ranks among the leading states when it comes to improving national scores in reading and math and boosting the academic performance of poor kids.

Bush, who will serve as chairman of the foundation's board of directors, now has two organizations from which to shape education policy in Florida, and perhaps draw a bigger national spotlight.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is tax-exempt, and will be raising money for its teacher and student programs. Meanwhile, Bush also will chair the Foundation for Florida's Future, an advocacy group.

"He clearly wants to create some protection for some of the changes to Florida's education system," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader and a frequent Bush critic.

Gov. Charlie Crist offered support for the foundation - to a point.

"I think it's great," he said. Anything Bush can do to "help our children get a better education, have more accountability ... I'm very much in favor of."

But when asked whether Bush's new organization might be at cross purposes with emerging signs that Crist may want to de-emphasize the FCAT, Crist said, "I don't know. Perhaps."

In the fall, some of Crist's allies on the state Board of Education traveled to New York to take a look at that state's regents exams, a set of standardized tests that cover a much broader array of subjects than the FCAT.

And on Tuesday, Florida's new education commissioner, Eric Smith, told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that he was open to the possibility of including other measures besides the FCAT, such as Advanced Placement exams, in grading Florida's high schools.

"We probably need to look at a broader array of tools," he said.

Bush's new foundation is backed by some of Florida's biggest companies, including Gulf Power, Florida Progress and Walt Disney. It's staffed by a small circle of politically influential loyalists.

Joining Bush on the board of directors is Zach Zachariah, a South Florida cardiologist and prolific Republican fundraiser, and Brian Yablonski, a former Bush policy director who's now an executive with the St. Joe Co., Florida's largest private landowner. The executive staff includes Levesque and Dierdre Finn, Bush's former deputy chief of staff.

Levesque and Yablonski are among the 25 appointees to the state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which is looking at a wide range of statewide issues, including vouchers, school funding and the class-size amendment.

Besides the June summit, the foundation on Tuesday announced a program to reward cash to up to 100 teachers whose students make big gains in reading and math.

It is also the new home for an arts scholarship program started by former first lady Columba Bush, and pursuing a partnership to build on a program that better prepares high school students to succeed in Advanced Placement courses.

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.