On June 21, 1999, Governor Jeb Bush signed Florida’s A+ Plan for Education into law, beginning a systemic transformation that serves as a national model for raising student achievement. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this comprehensive strategy to improve public education, the Foundation for Florida’s Future is publishing a blog series featuring perspectives from the people that made it happen.

The A+ Plan — A View from the Ground

By: Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform

Nearly 25 years ago, I had the opportunity to witness the beginnings of historic education reform in Florida. In 1995, Jeb Bush, who would be governor a few years later, was laying the groundwork for an educational renaissance in Florida and for the nation.

On the morning of a speaking engagement that year, I disembarked a flight at Tallahassee International, tired from a long trip but ready to help solve Florida’s most pressing problems. To my surprise, Jeb was waiting for those who came to speak at his new organization’s big event.

Without hesitation, he walked up, thanked us for coming and walked us out to his car in the hourly lot. The entire drive he peppered me with questions about promising education reform efforts, the way his group might improve schools and the positive impact they could have on the state in general.

After the event, Jeb drove us back to the airport. As we enjoyed a beverage waiting for our return flight, he made a toast and a commitment to one day make the vision we outlined a reality for Floridians. It didn’t take him long to accomplish that vision.

When Jeb became governor in 1999, more than 60 percent of minority and low-income fourth graders in Florida couldn’t read at a basic level. Barely half of Florida’s high-school seniors were graduating.

In his first year as governor, Jeb’s top priority was to make educational opportunity a reality for every child, so he successfully fought to implement Florida’s landmark A+ Plan for Education. Jeb and other state leaders called on the Center for Education Reform to help them develop and adopt ideas and best practices for laws that improve schools, positively engage and involve parents and help students achieve — ideas and practice that eventually became dominant nationwide.

In the years since, Florida’s graduation rate has increased by 25 percent, reaching an all-time high. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Nation’s Report Card, Florida’s education laws created achievement gains in math and reading larger than anywhere else in the country, save Washington, D.C.

Jeb measured results, held schools accountable and exposed them to competition. Even as vested interests in the system protested, student achievement accelerated. Today, parents have choices among more than 600 exceptional charter schools and hundreds of private schools across the Sunshine State and district school scores are on a steady ascent. On top of that, higher education became a reality for far more students, improving life and economic conditions for individuals at all levels of life.

Sadly, after an initial period of rapid expansion, experimentation and impressive innovation across the country, charter growth has slowed over the past decade. During the current school year, it has nearly ground to a halt. It’s certainly not due to lack of demand — there are more than half a million students on charter school waiting lists around the country who can’t get in. Rather, it’s caused by deliberate efforts to write laws and regulations that disadvantage charter schools from the moment they open, discouraging the creation of schools that could be creating a big difference in students’ lives and hobbling the few schools that are able to open.

I’ve seen firsthand the possibilities of education reform when it is backed by clear vision and a strong will. Now it’s time for lawmakers across the country — including our nation’s capital — to follow Florida’s lead and adopt the principles of the A+ Plan. Our children and their families deserve it. Our nation needs it.

Jeanne Allen is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

Founded in 1993, the Center for Education Reform aims to expand educational opportunities that lead to improved economic outcomes for all Americans — particularly our youth — ensuring that the conditions are ripe for innovation, freedom and flexibility throughout U.S. education.