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Jeb Bush tells Utah educators how to improve schools

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SALT LAKE CITY — After a meeting with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush Tuesday, Utah legislators announced plans to pattern some forthcoming policy after Bush's avant-garde approach to education reform.

During the eight years Bush called the shots in Florida, he managed to boost the state's ranking from 29th to 6th in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida's low-income, Hispanic students now out-score the statewide averages for all students in 31 states, including Utah.

Bush drew a crowd of more than 300 people, starting out the morning by giving a presentation at the Governor's Excellence in Education Commission and rounding out the afternoon as the keynote speaker at a luncheon for education stakeholders.

"We can take a page out of Gov. Bush's reform book," said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. "He's been there and done that. We don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Bush attributes the majority of Florida's success to a system that gives schools a letter grade ranging from A to F. Schools are rewarded for success with monetary bonuses.

Parents at low-achieving schools are given the choice to take their children — and their public funding — to other public or private schools.

"The net result was everybody started to focus on student learning," he said. "When you raise the bar up and provide incentives, you typically get a higher result. If you lower standards, you get the results you aspire to."

Utah Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, chairman of the standing education committee, and Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, are already working on a bill proposing the institution of a similar system in Utah.

"When schools are graded, parental concern and community for concern for schools goes up," Hughes said. "When the community gets invested, the data show, that's when you get results."

Like Bush, Niederhauser and Hughes said they planned to grade schools on a scale from A to F. Though the details of the bill are not yet ironed out, Niederhauser said lawmakers plan to take advantage of reports Utah schools are already required to file. Schools will likely be scored on graduation rates, remediation and individual student progress.

"It's an easy way to help people understand how we're doing," Niederhauser said. "People can relate to A, B, C, D, F; we've related to that all our lives."

Bush also outlined the positive effects of ending social promotion, boosting graduation requirements, supporting school choice and focusing on technology.

In Florida, students no longer move beyond the third grade until they are proficient readers.

Literacy at this point is critical, Bush said, because by fourth grade, students stop "learning to read and start reading to learn."

To boost student performance, Bush supplied schools with reading coaches to help teachers who "didn't know how to teach literacy."

Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, proposed a similar arrangement during the 2010 legislative session but was met with considerable opposition from the special education community.

The government approved a watered-down version, requiring only that schools offer focused remediation for struggling students. But Morgan said she intends to readdress the issue this year.

Because of Bush's aggressive approach, 70 percent of Florida's fourth-graders now read above grade level. Herbert noted, however, that Utah and Florida face considerably different challenges.

Utah boasts the lowest education spending in the nation. With little financial wiggle room, lawmakers questioned whether the state would be able to pursue such rigorous reforms.

"Money definitely helped," Bush said.

Florida's student population has also all but flatlined in recent years. Utah, which welcomed 11,000 new schoolchildren just this year, continues to grow.

"I think some of these ideas will work for us and should be proposed, but this was just a brainstorming session," Herbert said.

"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is get away from a one-size-fits-all approach to education."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com