AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged Texas to swing for the fences when overhauling public education, telling state senators Wednesday that he was able to transform foundering schools in his home state with big — if often unpopular — ideas.
But critics say Bush, who served from 1999 until 2007 and has since begun traveling the country as a leading voice for educational reform, was more successful at funneling public money to corporate interests than improving schools.
Often mentioned as a future Republican presidential candidate, Bush testified before the Texas Senate Education Committee and said overhauling public schools is a bipartisan issue, with supporters and detractors from both parties.
"I would advocate that when you have a chance to reform, it outta be big," he said. "Be big or go home."
Under Bush's watch, Florida adopted a school accountability rating system based on letter grades A-though-F, emphasized standardized testing scores when measuring school accountability and dramatically expanded charter schools, online and virtual learning programs and school voucher initiatives.
Texas caps the number of charter school licenses it issues at 215, though Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick is trumpeting a bill that would lift the cap. The Houston Republican also wants a voucher plan allowing parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition — though that idea faces stiff opposition in the Texas House.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry has endorsed issuing schools grades rather than rating them from "Exemplary" to "Academically Unacceptable" as the state does now.
And Texas already has strict accountability standards based on high-stakes testing. So much so that, beginning last year, high school students are required to pass 15 separate exams in core subjects in order to graduate.
That has sparked such a backlash about "over-testing" from students, parents and education professionals that state lawmakers have introduced a bevy of bills to substantially reduce the number of required exams. Bush, however, shrugged off such concerns, saying students need to be prepared for a stressful world.
"If you want to be anything you want to be, you're going to take a test to measure whether or not you're capable of achieving that," he said. "That's the way it is in adult life."
Bush addressed the Texas Business Leadership Council on Tuesday night with his son, George P., a rising star among Hispanic Republicans who has announced his plans to run for statewide office next year in Texas — but not said which one.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Jeb Bush refused to speculate about his son's future. When asked whether he's thinking about a presidential run, Bush said, "I'm really trying hard not to go through that decision because it's way too early."
Bush told the committee that added online classes, vouchers and charter schools now mean that 45 percent of all Florida students are learning in ways other than simply through traditional schools. He said any major changes require adequate funding but added, "You fund the reforms first and everything else second."
"There's enough money in the system," Bush said. "I would argue that maybe we should be funding the first things first, put the priorities where you want to see the results."
In 2011, the Texas Legislature cut funding for public schools and educational grant programs by $5.4 billion — though a bipartisan group of lawmakers is now discussing restoring up to about $1 billion of that.
Bush's critics say Florida's educational gains were sparked more by the state dramatically increasing what it spends on education and limiting class sizes, rather than embracing his ideas.
Democratic Sen. Leticia Van De Putte also noted that while Texas has seen increases in graduation rates for black students and those with disabilities, both cohorts haven't improved in Florida. Bush replied that "we were 49th in the country when we started on this journey, and every year we've had improved graduation rates for 14 straight years."
The Texas State Teachers Association, meanwhile, accused Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education of pushing reforms that channel public funding to his donors who run testing companies and online and private schools.
"Privatization is not reform," the association's president, Rita Haecker said in a statement. "Privatization puts the interests of corporations above those of school children."
Bush responded that his ideas make teachers unions angry because they reduce their power.
"That is about politics," he said, "not student achievement."