I spent the last two days in Washington DC at the Foundation for Excellence in Education's National Summit on Education Reform--and what an amazing conference it was. Thursday morning began with a bang as Gov. Jeb Bush kicked off the conference with a keynote address in which he emphasized the critical reasons why education reform and school choice should be national priorities. He highlighted his speech by personalizing the issue--introducing us to Denisha Merriweather, a student who was able to utilize a step up for students tax credit scholarship to escape a failing school, along the way becoming the first child in her family to complete High School and go on to complete college at the University of West Florida right here in Pensacola.
Jeb Bush urged the crowd of about 1,500 attendees to put substance ahead of form when he stated
"Overemphasizing not damaging students' self-esteem is not a recipe for being #1 in the world--it's the recipe for being #21 in the world for math comprehension" He went on to state his firm belief that parents must be empowered to choose the best solution for the needs of their own students--"education should be a national priority, not a bureacratic, big government jobs program!"
Communicating the Message of Reform
The breakout sessions were incredibly well attended, with several becoming standing room only affairs. The first session I attended was all about building coalitions and effectively communicating the message to parents and stakeholders about the value of education reform and school choice. David Mansouri, a reform advocate from Tennessee shared strategies he and his organization (SCORE Tennessee) utilized to increase awareness about the strategies Tennessee was using to make the public schools there better. He strongly advocated the use of social media, surveying, and most importantly building coalitions. "Be bullish on coalition building" was his mantra.
The first day's lunch was kicked off by former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. He shared many
of the stories from his eight year stint as CEO of the largest school district in America. His emphasis was on the very strong power of utilizing charter schools to empower parents. He stated that "When parents utilize the power of school choice, it gets the attention of the public school monopolies" When asked about NYC's notorious "rubber rooms" (teacher reassignment centers, pending adjudication of discipline hearings) he stated that "Because we had to have them, because it took on average 2-3 years to handle the discipline proceedings-this shows just how broken the system is in America" On the subject of parental engagement, Klein also pointed to how choice in education can impact that problem. He stated "The #1 way to get a mom involved in her child's education is to give her choice in her child's education." On the subject of the massive bureaucracy and layered levels of administration in many American schools, he wryly stated "Sadly, schools today emphasize protecting and defending their systems, not innovating to improve for the betterment of students" After he left the stage, I was fortunate to be invited to attend a small group session with Joel Klein, where the subjects of classroom discipline, social promotion, and lowered standards were discussed. Some heavy-hitters in Florida Politics were in the room of 8 people, including Senator John Legg, Senator Bill Galvano, and Rep. Eric Friesen.
Next up was an interesting session on utilizing out of the box thinking and private public ventures to finance favorable education "outcomes" for local school districts. This panel was an all-star group, including Chester Finn from the Fordham Institute, Senator Bill Galvano, Representative Greg Hughes from Utah, and Ian Galloway from the Federal Reserve Bank. Mr. Galloway suggested that education reformers look to privatize charter school outcomes by defining what successful outcomes are desired, then utilizing private industry and investment funding to achieve the goals--much the same way that PPVs have been utilized to successfully run low income housing where the Federal Government failed miserably at this. Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner suggested the expansion of individual, flexible education savings accounts that parents could use to tailor a customizable education plan for their children.
Marco Rubio, Condoleezza Rice, and Juan Williams
Night one featured an excellent conversation moderated by Juan Williams from Fox News. Former
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined Marco Rubio in stressing the importance of school choice and school reform as a method for making American schools better. Senator Rubio gave several examples of charter schools being engines of success in Miami. He expressed disdain for the parochial nature of some education entities, stating that "Educational expenditures belongs to students, it's not a jobs program for school districts!" Condoleezza rice blew up the failed argument that many in the education establishment tout when they state it is improper for government money to flow to faith-based schools. She stated "We spend tax money of private, religious schools at the college level, K-12 should be no different" she went on to say, "If we can't do this, is it time to pull all Pell grants and
student loans from schools like Notre Dame?" (that quip drew thunderous applause from the audience) Both of these distinguished speakers stressed the fact that reform in the way education is delivered in America must change; This must be a top priority. Sen. Rubio tantalizingly stated his belief that at the federal level, tax credit scholarship accounts might be a way for the federal government to provide more needy students expanded access to high quality education options.
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