Monday, June 13, 2016

Jeb Bush's Education Vision

After his attempt to be the New Coke of GOP Presidential politics, Jeb Bush has retreated to his signature issue-- privatizing education. He's back at the head of his advocacy group the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), and he's even back to cranking out magazine copy about his vision of a better tomorrow for US schools.

The National Review has given Bush a platform with "Saving America's Education System" (though the URL reads, weirdly, "jeb-bush-education-school-reform-future-disruption-technology"), and it presents one more re-vision of unapologetic reformsterism. So now that Bush has gotten the band back together, will he play some of his greatest hits for us? Let's see.

Don't Throw Money

One of our favorites kicks in in the very first sentence, where Bush notes that the school year has now ended and "another $620 billion has been spent." He follows that up immediately with the observation that we spend more money on education than almost any other industrialized nation. But we still have achievement gaps. Also, Bush will throw in the most bogus of bogus statistics, saying that "only 8 percent of high school grads are truly college and career ready."

That's wrong for several reasons. First, the Education Trust report from which he plucks that statistic actually says that "only 8 percent of high school graduates in 2013 completed a full college- and career-prep curriculum." That is a bizarrely demanding definition of college and career ready that would, for just one example, rule out a student who attended a CTE welding program. But then, Education Trust is a Gates-funded, reform-pushing advocacy group, so it's not surprising that they would push a statistic that is so easily debunked (are 92% of college freshmen in remedial courses and/or flunking out because they were unprepared for college?)

Of course, we don't really know, still, what college and career ready look like. We have no proven list of characteristics that certify such readiness. So that's a problem.

But most of all--- why would Bush bring this up? If our students are less ready for college and career, that reflects directly on the Common Core, test-driven reforms that have been forced into schools for the past six years. At this point. we were supposed to see a great rise in college readiness among students who had benefited from years of Common Core-ness. If Bush's "only 8% are ready" statistic were true, it would be an indictment of the reforms that he has tireless pushed down the throats of US education.

Scary Test Scores

Yes, we do poorly on international tests. No, Bush is not going to mention that we have always done poorly. He's going to say the test scores are dangerous because "innovation has created a competitive global economy in which knowledge has become the chief commodity." He will not explain what the tests have to do with innovation or knowledge, nor explain that many of the top testing nations are lousy at innovation (e.g. China).

Also, McKinsey says that all the jobs will be done by computers.

Only Education Has Anything To Do With Poverty

To put it bluntly, a baby born into poverty today, without a quality education, will never be able to secure a good job in his or her lifetime. 

There's half a sentence here that is missing from the end-- "because we will never lift a finger to help that person escape poverty, and we will never do a thing to create better jobs in this country." If you doubt that's the subtext here, look at the next sentence:

Education should be the great equalizer in our society, one that provides the opportunity for every individual to rise

Not economic growth, not innovation, not responsible leaders or business and industry, not opportunities that transcend race and class-- no, only education can fix economic inequality in America. Only education is a factor in US poverty. Nothing else. Damn. Why was this guy even running for President?

Massive Disruption

We must have massive disruption of our education system. Nothing else. Not housing or hiring or welfare or outsourcing or government-- just education needs to be disrupted. Massively.

Vision for Tomorrow

Now Bush shifts into a new hit, which repeats many themes and sounds from his old greatest hits repertoire, but adds a new spin. Here's what Bush sees twenty years away in a newer, kinder, gentler education system.

There are no more assigned schools. Parents of all income levels are able to choose from a robust marketplace of options, including traditional neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools. Information on their performance is readily available, and they are held accountable to parents and communities.

Of course, we already know that virtual schools don't work. And he doesn't mention that the traditional public schools will be a dumping ground for all the students who aren't accepted by all the shiny options. And he doesn't discuss funding. If we just have one of each, this is five schools-- will taxpayers be paying more to properly fund all these options, or will we try to run five schools for the price of one, and which ones will end up seriously underfunded (spoiler alert-- the public one). "Held accountable" how, exactly? Because Florida's charter schools are pretty spectacular examples of schools that aren't accountable to anyone.

Bush sees a system that weeds out failure and rewards and replicates success. He does not explain how failure will be defined. That would be important, since in such a system, the definition of success is also the definition of purpose. So if "success" is "gets good test scores," then you have decided that the purpose of schools is to prepare students for the Big Standardized Test. Is that the only purpose you can think of for schools? Because I thought schools were supposed to get everyone great jobs. How will you measure that, exactly?


Jeb loves him some vouchers. In his perfect future, the money will follow the child. I always think this is a bold choice for a nominal conservative politician, since it is literally taxation without representation-- taxpayers who don't have kids get to pay for schools, but they have no voice in what kind of schools they get. And if the money follows the kid, why can't the kid just have a big party?

But I have to take my hat off to somebody who still believes in vouchers. It's the kind of devotion you usually find only in members of the Flat Earth Society, an adherence to a long-debunked belief that doesn't have a speck of evidence to support it.

Float Free as a Bird

But why have a school at all, says Bush. Why not just get your AP Calculus from this on-line provider, and get your English from some other provider. Watch for the of homeschooling. Let students move through coursework at their own personal speed. Assess student mastery of skills through the year, and never social promote. Yes, we'll have Competency Based Education, but we'll call it something else.

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In fact, speaking of names, we not only won't speak the name of Common Core, but we'll skirt "college and career ready" too.

Students are tested based on standards aligned with college expectations, results are reported transparently, and as a result, our higher-education system saves $1.5 billion annually on remediation courses.

Which college expectations? Harvard? University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople? And what is this "results reported transparently"? Oh, right-- high schools routinely trick colleges into accepting students who aren't really ready. Which would make more sense if we didn't keep finding evidence that high school GPA is the best predictor of college performance.

Teacher Love

We'll have merit based pay (even though it doesn't work) and we will fire all the sucky ones, because we will magically know how to identify bad teachers. And nobody will stop us, ever, because in this future, "excellence isn’t collectively bargained away." So, no collective bargaining, and firing our way to excellence while using merit pay that doesn't work. This is not a great plan.

Evil DC

Bush next moves on to three steps to getting his lovely future made real. These three ideas are also from his greatest hits list.

Get the power out of DC. It's an awful place that's too far away from where real decisions are made. I suppose it's too much to hope that Jeb would actually say something mean about No Child Left Behind, the big intrusive federal program with his brother's signature on it.

Choice Choicey Choicity Choice

Bush would like to rewrite all the laws so that whichever ones make it hard to pull off school choice would go away. Perhaps he has forgotten that one of the rules that has gotten in the way of voucher programs is that pesky Constitution. Embrace technology. Give the kids the money.

Data, Not Politics

Bush imagines that partisan political bickering is somehow in the way of his education reform, which is in some ways the most divorced-from-reality assertion in an essay crowded with bulletins from alternate universes. The fights over education policy are not partisan. Bush's position is not a political one-- it's a financial one. There is no principle at play here except the principle of "Let's do away with public education so that $600 billion of tax dollars can be freely pursued and scooped up by businessmen and other profiteers." I can believe that Bush sincerely believes that unleashing the power of the free mark will create virtuous pressure to create a better education system, but there simply isn't a single shred of evidence to support him.

Hence the irony of his call for decisions driven by data. Because at every turn, Bush steadfastly ignores data when it disagrees with his preferred policies.

Mix Tape

Other than some basic wrap-up, that's the vision. While it's all familiar, I find it striking to get it all in one quick concert, because that underlines just how radical non-Presidential candidate Bush is. This is not remotely incremental or evolutionary. This is a call to blow up public education in the US and replace it with a profit-making system for corporate amateurs who want to play school with our tax dollars.

Ironically, the radical approach isn't even working. The comments section is filled with people calling Bush one more shill for DC and slamming him for lacking the Scott Walker-sized balls to just outlaw teacher unions. Jeb went to the trouble to bring a crate of TNT to the party and he's still not considered tough enough to sit with the cool kids.

Maybe that's why at the end of the article he's not listed as a very expensive failed Presidential candidate or even as the head of FEE, but simply "former governor of Florida."

I give Bush a little credit for sticking to his education guns. I half-expected that after his black hole of a Presidential campaign collapsed, vaporizing enough money to flat a small nation, Bush would go find something else to do, that education was supposed to be his boost to national status, and that status gone, he would dump education as well. But I guess a guy has to eat, and this is his thing. maybe he even believes a lot of the baloney that he dishes out. maybe he could set up an education consulting firm with Arne Duncan , and they could tour together with the same back-up band, performing medleys of both their greatest hits (which are pretty much in the same key in the same style). But what I rally wish he would do is go take up macrame, or find some hobby playing with something that he actually knows something about. Because after years of playing with education as an issue, it's clear that he still doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.


  1. Excellent!
    And, big bonus points for U of SND at H!

  2. Yes, he should take up macrame, like his brother did painting. Too bad W didn't find his true vocation a lot earlier so he wouldn't have caused so much harm. w always reminds me of Louis XVI of France, who really just wanted to tinker with watches instead of being king. Of course, he ended up being guillotined.