Jeb Bush’s Speech Made Sour Milk

Jeb Bush gave a speech at the Republican National Convention last night and, finally, Florida’s powerful former governor made the case for “choice” in public schools:  

“Everywhere in our lives, we get a chance to choose. Go down in the supermarket aisle and you will find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, buttermilk, 2 percent milk, low-fat milk, or skim milk, organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk: chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. And it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who cannot drink milk. So, my question to you is, shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools that best meets the needs of their students?” 

Buttermilk? 

Doesn’t “choice” help steer business toward privately owned charter schools while leaving struggling schools without their best students and, thus, worse off? Bush brought out a former student during his speech, who talked about being able to leave the Miami inner city school he was attending. “Thanks to Governor Bush’s school choice program, I got the chance to choose a better school.” 

Right, but what about the kids who don’t take that chance? Where’s their help? And while Bush cites several statistics showing testing gains for lower-income, African-American and disabled students, he does not mention that passing grades have been lowered by Florida’s education board to account for decreasing scores. 

Hanna Skandera, head of the New Mexico Public Education Department, is a product of Jeb Bush’s education-policy camp. Skandera served as deputy education commissioner under Bush when he was Florida’ governor, and she worked with him at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. 

Skandera has been implementing a system of education reform focused on giving letter grades to entire schools and evaluating teachers based on their students’ testing data. Bush and Skandera want to assign labels, but the incomprehensible letter-grade system for public schools does nothing to address any pressing issues like the desperate need for talented school-parent liaisons. 

Bush gave Gov. Susana Martinez a shout-out in his speech: “Governor Martinez in New Mexico is raising expectations, holding schools accountable for students gaining critical reading skills.” He then proceeded to bash “politically powerful unions.” 

Bush once told the New York Times he was “closely involved” with New Mexico’s education reform. The model would send public tax dollars (already scarce enough and dropping every year) into private education companies by allowing charters to take over failing schools and by giving students the option to enroll in online “virtual learning academies,” owned and operated for-profit by savvy campaign donors. 

Skandera has emphasized to local papers that she favors moving kids into “virtual learning.” The online learning company K12, Inc., has donated to Gov. Susana Martinez and is working to establish itself in New Mexico. It was featured in a New York Times article last year that said “a look at the company’s operations… raises serious questions about whether K12 schools – and full-time online schools in general – benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.”

“Instead,” the story went on, “a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.” 

Online education is one “choice” Republicans favor, despite bad returns and the appearance of pay-to-play because these companies are so politically connected. There’s also charter schools. This was in the Miami Herald, reporting on Jeb Bush’s Florida reforms: “Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords – one and the same, in many cases – and rife with insider deals and conflicts of interest.” 

The Herald reported that Florida charters received about $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student, money which goes toward landlords and management companies who have no stake in traditional public eduction. (And lest we think this is still better, the Herald also said “Charter school students on average perform about the same as the counterparts in traditional public schools on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.”)

Opponents of Bush and Skandera’s school reform like to say the goal is sabotaging public education so it can be taken over by private interests. That might seem conspiratorial, but after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal passed reforms – including vouchers (so kids can attend private school on the taxpayers’ dime) and an expansion of online schools – he was sued by teachers in his state. Jindal responded by noting how terrible the public school system there is: “Forty-four percent of our public schools are failing, 225,000 students are below grade level and our state is spending a billion dollars a year on failing schools. That’s unacceptable. The people of Louisiana demand and deserve better.”

States aren’t fixing their public school systems, they’re letting them flounder under budget cuts and then handing them off to private companies. This is what “choice” means to Bush and Jindal and Hanna Skandera. Instead of explaining himself, Bush rambled about every kind of milk he could think of. Behold, the Republicans’ argument for choice. 

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