How did Florida's students go from among the lowest performers in the nation on federal reading exams to among the top in the nation in just 11 years?
That was the question posed to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was in Oklahoma for two days promoting Florida's education reforms and stumping for two GOP candidates on the ballot in November: Janet Barresi for state superintendent of schools and U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, who is running for governor.
"It was a suite of reforms that yielded slight student improvement each year, which yielded us above the national average over time," Bush said Wednesday morning at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel after a fundraiser for Barresi.
Bush took office in 1998 when students were scoring below the national average on federal reading tests. When he departed eight years later, student scores were well above the national average.
Florida students have made huge gains on the gold standard of standardized tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, Florida's large Hispanic population, a group of students that historically performs poorly on standardized tests, are outscoring Oklahoma's student population.
Oklahoma students have remained stagnant on the exams, showing little improvement or regression over the past 10 years. Gains have been made in a few subjects and a few grade levels over the years, but by and large test scores have remained the same.
Bush's day in Oklahoma proceeded from there with a presentation to members of the Oklahoma House and Senate about Florida's comparative educational success.
He encouraged Oklahoma lawmakers to cut through bureaucracy.
"Oklahoma has languished," Bush said. "There's no reason why Oklahoma kids can't learn, other than the adults around them."
In Florida, Bush said they put an end to the graduation of third grade students who are below grade level, particularly in reading, holding those students back for remediation.
Florida also created a school rating system that easily informs parents, using grade letters "A" through "F" on school performance. The state then gave those parents options about where to send their children.
Bush said choice that breeds competition between public and private schools was integral to his state's success. With an active voucher system that allows low-income parents to use state funds for a private school education and 375 charter schools throughout the state, Bush said competition is strong in Florida.
Oklahoma has 18 charter schools and no voucher program, but the state does have an open transfer program that allows parents to move their children to any public school district that will accept them.
Bush said Oklahoma needs reform.
He said the Race to the Top — a federal grant competition that led to Oklahoma passing a package of education reforms — was a step in the right direction, but added, "We need to get way beyond that."
The brother and son of two former Republican presidents did give President Barack Obama's education reform plan a compliment, saying it was "one area of credit" he would give to the president for his sincere effort to improve education.