Joe Henderson: Jeb Bush, school choice advocates could not be more pleased with Trump’s pick for education secretary

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Jeb! Bush generally is considered the father of school choice, especially in Florida.

As Governor in 1999, Bush pushed through the first statewide school voucher program in the nation. He was the champion of grading individual schools on how well students do on standardized testing. He pushed for what became known as “accountability” for public school teachers through a battery of standardized tests.

Boiled to its essence, the philosophy is this: If the kids flunk, it’s the teacher’s fault. It’s not an idle threat.

The school and the teacher can pay the price for that. Schools can get labeled as failing. Teachers can lose their jobs.

”Why should we trap kids in schools that aren’t working?” Bush told the The New York Times in a 1999 interview.

Given all that, it figures he would herald the announcement that Betsy DeVos has been chosen to be the next federal Secretary of Education. She is considered a champion of school choice, including funneling public tax money into schools with a religious background.

She and her husband have been major Republican donors for years. She also served as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and was the finance chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She has conceded that for her efforts and money, she expects a “return on investment.”

Now she has that.

“I cannot think of more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms,” Bush wrote on his Facebook page after DeVos was announced.

A “new education vision” sounds good, but let’s see this for what it really is. That vision likely will amount to an all-out assault on the way public schools are funded and how they educate children, a tactic signaled by new Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

He said a lawsuit against by the state teacher’s union against the corporate tax scholarship program – a deftly named voucher program – was “evil.”

Then he really got rolling.

“They are literally trying to destroy the lives of 100,000 children. Most of them are minorities, and all of them are poor. It flies in the face of common sense, and it defies every single study. It’s downright evil,” Corcoran said at his swearing-in ceremony.

Corcoran is known for blunt talk and power politics, but he outdid himself with this one. To say this lawsuit is “literally trying to destroy” lives is ridiculous and incendiary – not to mention wrong.

I have always believed the worst thing that happened to education in this state is when politicians began seeing teachers as a target instead of an ally. Bush was at the forefront of that. While I don’t doubt his sincerity in trying to address problems in struggling schools, I think his premise – implied or otherwise — that students fail because of bad teachers is wrong.

In many instances, the problem begins at home. Bush and Corcoran should spend a few days in the front office of a public school and listen to the abuse administrators and staff take from parents and students. Full disclosure: My wife works in the office at a local high school, and my oldest son is a teacher.

They are far from my only source on this, though. I hear all the time about students who won’t do their work and cause disruptions in class, only to have the parent file a complaint (or just start screaming) when the student fails.

Would that be different at a for-profit charter school? I doubt it, especially if the operator of the school is well-connected politically. Given Republicans’ zeal to weaken (if not destroy) the teachers’ union though, we will no doubt get a picture now from Washington that “choice” and “charters” are the key to make America great again!

Tallahassee has a head start in taking Florida in that direction. Jeb! couldn’t be more pleased.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.