Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and State Superintendent Mark Johnson shared thoughts on education reform during a Tuesday, June 26, kickoff event for a new education nonprofit organization, Grow Great NC.

“North Carolina and Florida are on the vanguard of learning achievement,” Bush said.

Bush explained how his administration pushed education reform in Florida, turning around the state’s low National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and improving student performance. Before Bush became Florida governor, the state’s NAEP scores were among the lowest in the nation. After eight years of education reform, the state is in the top-10 percentile.

The recent NAEP scores showed little to no change from 2015 to 2017, except for Florida, which saw an average scores increase in fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics. North Carolina’s reading scores remained unchanged, but fourth-grade math scores decreased.

Bush said reforms can’t stick unless student achievement improves, and it’s important to invest in data tracking to see whether those reforms are working.

“Data matters because you can adjust your policy to make sure they’re relevant to what you want to achieve ” Bush said. “Having that data can actually drive policy in an effective way.”

Collecting data usually means standardized testing. The General Assembly recently passed House Bill 986, which includes a provision directing Johnson to study ways to reduce standardized testing. Johnson and Bush agreed standardized testing needs to be reined in.

“I do think we overtest, but you can have an accountability system with an end-of-year test that measures whether a student is learning the material that is expected of them, but you could eliminate all the other tests that are in preparation of that,” Bush said. “Great teachers don’t teach to the test. They teach the material of the standards expected of them.”

Johnson said there needs to be better — but fewer — tests.

“We’re going to have tests. We’ve always had tests in schools,” Johnson said. “We need to know how students are doing, but we don’t need to have as many tests as we have now. And the tests we have now don’t have to cause a few students panic attacks.”

During the roundtable discussion, Bush criticized teacher unions for pursuing political agendas not directly related to public education — such as Planned Parenthood funding, immigration reform, or foreign policy.

“This isn’t about teaching, this is about the political power of a union that uses their dues to be able to carry out a political agenda that goes way beyond teaching,” Bush said. “That should not be the vision of a teachers union. A teachers union ought to be protecting the professionalization of teaching.”

Bush said Florida’s teachers’ union opposed every reform his administration proposed, including differentiated pay for teachers based on performance. North Carolina has had similar debates over how to pay teachers. Debates have centered around whether teachers should be paid based on how well their students perform and what extra responsibilities they take on — or on academic experience and seniority.

School choice was briefly discussed, as Florida and North Carolina have extensive experience with charter schools, magnet schools, and other school-choice ventures. Bush said proponents of school choice need to make the argument that school choice isn’t a burden on the public school budget. Rather, it can save state’s money.

“Make the compelling argument that when you give parents options on the private side, it’s going to save money, because it does,” Bush said. “Don’t let the argument be the exact opposite, which is the argument is that you’re taking money from public schools. No, you’re giving money to the parents to choose which school they go to.”

If they choose a private school, Bush said, the student funding allocation is less than if they choose a public school. Bush argued the possibility of a correlation between rising student achievement in traditional public schools and empowering parental choice.

“Take this on the road, we can win this argument.” Bush said. “The final thing I’ll say is: has there ever been a time in American history where choices are viewed as a danger?”