Jeb Bush, whose education reforms in Florida have inspired efforts elsewhere around the nation, preached to the choir Tuesday in a speech to the annual ACE Scholarships luncheon.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
After reciting a list of discouraging education statistics, the Florida governor said, “Yet we quietly sit back and say there’s all sorts of reasons why this is happening. We can’t do anything about it. … You’ve heard it all over and over, and the complacency overwhelms us to the point where now I would say this more than any of the other great structural challenges we face in our nation puts us at risk of being a nation in decline.”

Bush continued, “We need to make this a national priority, not necessarily a federal government priority … but a national priority, and the path to make this happen, in my opinion, is to make it something of great national purpose and focus on a formula of success.”

That formula, he said, includes:

  • Parental engagement
  • Higher standards
  • “I’m-not-kidding accountability based on student achievement”
  • Customized learning
  • “Reform of the teaching profession where great teachers are rewarded and bad teachers are asked to leave the classroom” (to applause)

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And, Bush said, there’s “one other element, which is to empower people with the great American concept of choice.”

He called choice “as American as apple pie … but why do we not accept the notion that maybe in schooling perhaps the most important thing we ought to be doing for our children is that we ought to providing more choices?”

He termed choice “a catalytic converter than can accelerate ourselves forward before it’s too late” to reform education and ensure that more students are college and career ready.

School choice is the core mission of ACE Scholarships, which provides financial support averaging $2,160 a year to some 1,200 low-income students to attend private schools.

Bush outlined the education reforms he pushed in Florida as governor from 1999-2007, including an A-to-F grading system for schools, incentive funding for improved school performance, higher standards and the end of third grade social promotion. (Colorado’s new READ Act was inspired partly by Florida’s third grade policies.)

He also noted, “We created the most ambitious school choice program … and [that] was a key ingredient in why we saw public schools improving.”

Bush also criticized what he called “the three myths” about school choice:

  • Some kids can learn but others can’t
  • School choice drains money from public schools
  • Choice “creams” the best students from public schools

To the contrary, he said, “All schools do better when there are more choices.”

As education becomes ever more important to individual success, “the right to rise as a bedrock American value is being threated to its core” by weaknesses in the educational system, said Bush, who now heads the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “Who we are as a nation is going to be altered in a way that may be permanent” if reforms aren’t made.

“We can change the course of our country by making sure that educational opportunities are afforded to all of us. … The next generation could flood this nation with unprecedented shows of human potential, and that should be our goal.”

Bush encouraged the audience to “join reformers to make school choice both public and private the norm in our country. School choice is an economic imperative, school choice is a moral imperative, school choice is an integral part of the restoration of the American ideal that anybody can make it in this country of ours. … Keep up the fight.”

The luncheon, which drew about 1,700 to the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Denver, is a key fundraising event for ACE, which hopes to raise enough funding to provide scholarships for 2,000 students next school year. ACE books high-profile speakers for the event; former Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee was last year’s headliner.