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 who made it happen.
The Start of Education Reform in America
By: John Thrasher, president of Florida State University and former state legislator
Reflecting on my days as a county school board member, I knew big, bold change was needed for the students and the future of our state. I saw firsthand how students and families struggled with no support and how schools and school districts were not held accountable to those families.
The foundation of what we now know as the A+ Plan for Education began well before the 1999 legislative session. In fact, Floridians had been hearing about A-F School Grading, vouchers for kids trapped in failing schools and other student-centered reforms for more than a year before. That’s because these issues were at the center of Jeb Bush’s 1998 campaign for governor. He was clear on the solutions needed to reverse the seemingly never-ending cycle of decline in student achievement in Florida, while his gubernatorial opponent challenged those solutions at every turn. And when Governor Bush took office, he kept that promise of implementing real solutions to Florida’s education crisis.
The A+ Plan for Education was the turning point that Florida needed to serve our students and families. Led by Governor Bush and championed by Representative Evelyn Lynn, Representative Jerry Melvin and Representative Alex Diaz de la Portilla, we had a bold piece of legislation that addressed teacher incentives, school safety, accountability and choice.
I’ll pull back the curtain a bit for a little behind-the-scenes look at the process: Representatives Melvin and Diaz de la Portilla felt so strongly about turning around our schools that they both wanted to carry the A-F School Grading and Opportunity Scholarship Bill. So we flipped a coin in my office, and Representative Diaz de la Portilla won that honor. Looking back, it was incredible to see state leaders so focused on doing what was right for students and willing to be out in front of real change.
The A+ Plan included:
- A transparent school grading scale using A, B, C, D and F.
- The school recognition program – which is still likely the largest rewards program in the country where schools get financial rewards for improving a letter grade or maintaining an A grade — and most of the funds are used to provide bonuses to staff for a job well done.
- The first statewide private school choice program in the country, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, where kids in failing schools could go to the public or private school of their choice.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program was only about eight pages of the 180-page bill, but it got the most attention. I recall one committee meeting where there were almost 80 amendments filed on just those eight pages. We convened a select House committee just to handle the amendments and comments on the A+ Plan. The committee spent an entire week taking public testimony on the legislation before it was slated for a vote. And what we heard time and again was that change was needed to save our state.
As Speaker of the House, I was proud to be part of this historic legislation that would impact rising student achievement for years to come. The House approved the A+ Plan on April 28, 1999, with a 70–48 vote. The Senate passed it two days later. I remember we had two full days of debate on the House Floor – I wanted to make sure everyone got a say, as this legislation affected every single part of the state.
Now, 20 years later, Florida is no longer at the bottom of education statistics and rankings. The A+ Plan was controversial back then, but we stuck with it. And it became the foundation on which all the improvements we’ve seen over the last 20 years have been built.
Schools have been graded A-F every year, so parents and communities know exactly how their schools are performing while also raising the bar and encouraging our schools and students to push for greater achievements every year. The Opportunity Scholarship Program opened the door to the possibilities of education choice for families and the programs that followed: McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Gardiner Scholarship Program and Hope Scholarships are serving more than 140,000 students today.
But we didn’t rest with the A+ Plan. We continued to build on that foundation with legislation that brought a command focus on early literacy; incentives for students who earn college credit through AP, IB, Cambridge certificates and industry credentials; and new learning model pilots to better serve this new generation of kids.
Since these improvements, it’s difficult to remember where our state was before 1999. Half our high-schoolers were not graduating, and half our fourth graders couldn’t read. That was unacceptable, and we worked to turn our education system around.
Florida is now a national leader in education, and other states look to us to see how massive and comprehensive change for good is done. It takes bold, massive change to improve education across America and for all students. We have the A+ Plan and Governor Bush’s bold vision to thank for that—and to use as the charge to keep going.