Jeb Bush receives ‘overdue’ school choice award

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INDIANAPOLIS – With an award described as “overdue,” a national school choice advocacy group recognized Jeb Bush for his contributions to the movement.

The former Florida governor received the John T. Walton Champions for School Choice award from the American Federation for Children today at its annual gathering.

A past recipient of the award — John Kirtley, the chairman of Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog — said Bush summoned him to Miami shortly after he started a Tampa-based offshoot of the Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1999. The governor recognized that the thousands of parents on the waiting list for scholarships could become foot soldiers in Tallahassee.

That conversation led to the creation of Florida tax credit scholarship program, now the largest private school choice program in the nation, in 2001.

Since then, Kirtley said, Florida has expanded scholarships for special needs students, launched some of the country’s largest virtual education programs, and seen a proliferation of magnet, charter and career-themed public schools. Most of those concepts seemed radical in the late ’90s, but they’ve gone mainstream and now serve nearly a third of the state’s K-12 students.

The state has shed its reputation as a national laughingstock and gained recognition for its reading and math progress.

“Because of Jeb Bush, Florida has come further than any other state in moving toward what we call a new definition of public education,” Kirtley said.

In his remarks, Bush called on advocates to push harder to transform the education system. Schools of all types need to improve, he said. But right now, teachers unions and other opponents of reform “are winning” the political battle.

“The challenges we face are greater than complacency makes us believe,” he said.

In that vein, Bush said he hoped Gov. Rick Scott would sign sweeping, contentious education legislation aimed at drawing “high-quality charter schools” to Florida. A chorus of public education officials has called for a veto.