Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched ExcelinEd (formerly known as the Foundation for Excellence in Education) in 2008, shortly after ending a tenure as governor marked by a focus on education. ExcelinEd continues his work by developing education policy and conducting state-specific research. It has had a significant impact across the land, championing measures including school accountability, early literacy, and broad education choice opportunities for families. Recently, ExcelinEd released its key goals for the next five years. I chatted with CEO Patricia Levesque about their work and what’s ahead.
Hess: What is ExcelinEd, and what’s your role in education?
Levesque: ExcelinEd is an organization of people who believe that policy changes lives and that education is the key to giving kids opportunities for success in the future. Through our sister c4 organization, ExcelinEd in Action, we actively lobby for policy change in more than 25 states each year. We develop policy solutions for state leaders based upon research, proven success, creative problem solving, and learning from other states. We want states to create systems that are centered around children and their needs, so we also conduct state-specific research such as our Credentials Matter project, which looks at how industry credentials address the skills gap and create pathways to careers by states; our review of public charter school authorizing policy in Texas; and a new guide that lays out how Illinois can design next-generation learning systems that meet the unique needs of students and communities.
Hess: ExcelinEd has just recently released key goals for the next five years. Can you talk a bit about the problems you’re hoping to tackle?
Levesque: We believe that too many children—especially low-income students, students of color, and rural students—do not have access to a high-quality education. Our goals are really built around two directives from Gov. Jeb Bush and our board of directors: Seize the opportunities for innovation resulting from the massive disruption of COVID-19 and protect the foundational policies that we believe are critical for ensuring equity and quality for all students. [See here for Gov. Bush’s interview last spring regarding how to respond to the pandemic.] McKinsey and Company found that, on average, students had lost the equivalent of three months of learning in math and 1.5 months in reading due to the pandemic—and that students of color are faring even worse. We have a responsibility to turn that around and to act quickly.
Hess: Ok, so how did the pandemic help shape your goals?
Levesque: Well, we know that fewer students transitioned to college this year due to the pandemic’s impact on in-person instruction. Yet, most of the fastest-growing job opportunities require a postsecondary credential. K-12 and postsecondary systems must build quality pathways for student success, so ExcelinEd set the goal to strengthen college and career pathways. Additionally, we have seen that parent demand for access to education options is higher than ever at this time. So, we have a goal to empower families with the opportunity to find the best fit for their child’s educational needs. We believe every state should be looking to expand education options for families, especially during the pandemic and through recovery.
Hess: What are some of your other key goals?
Levesque: One of our goals is to close learning gaps. Every child needs to learn how to read by 3rd grade. State funding systems should be based upon the needs of the student, and states need to measure how students are doing annually. High-quality teachers should be in every classroom. Another of our goals is to bridge the digital divide. Students need access to devices and the internet—not only to survive during online learning but also to thrive in the future because these really are foundational tools for education. Children can’t learn if they can’t access the teacher, the content, the coursework; teachers can’t teach remotely if they don’t have access to the internet. We have also set a goal to reimagine learning. This goal allows us to rethink everything, including flexible paths to mastery, credit for work experience, opportunities for teachers to change their role in education, and allowing students to learn anywhere. Now is the time to innovate.
Hess: How is this a shift from your previous approach?
Levesque: We’ve always believed that the best education is one that is centered around the needs of the student—where learning is the focus, and a diverse variety of options are available and accessible. We’ve always stood up for the fundamentals of education—creating strong readers ready for learning, holding schools accountable to the needs of students and families, and making sure funding is equitable and based upon the needs of the student. Now, with the disruption of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to innovate—to rethink everything in learning, from the role of the teacher to where and how students can earn credit. Now more than ever, we know that education isn’t about place and we have the tools and know-how to customize education so that each and every child can achieve their full potential.
Hess: Can you give a couple examples of what you’ve championed that you regard as particular successes?
Levesque: Mississippi is a great example. Since 2013, Mississippi has taken bold steps to implement with fidelity early literacy, school accountability, and financial-incentive policies—and they are working. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the state’s learning gains were the best in the nation. For the first time, Mississippi 4th graders scored higher than the nation’s public school average in mathematics and tied the national average in reading. That’s remarkable progress. ExcelinEd played a role in that progress by working with dedicated executive and legislative branch leaders and state advocates to pass and implement policies patterned after those that created strong outcomes in Florida. We continue to serve on the state’s technical advisory board on accountability as well as to support leaders from the all-too-common efforts to roll back strong policy.
Florida is the first state in the country to provide serious startup funding—more than $250 million—for high-performing charter organizations to open or expand in the state, specifically to serve students in the state’s economically depressed Opportunity Zones. Called Schools of Hope, the program provides planning, startup, and bridge-loan funding to high-impact operators. And it’s working. IDEA public schools is opening its first school in the state later this year and has plans to open schools for another 25,000-some kids in the next decade. KIPP and Mater Academy schools have plans to serve over 21,000 more students in the state. ExcelinEd worked for three years to get the policies adopted to give high-performing operators a “fast pass” to open, and policymakers backed the idea with startup funding.
Hess: Can you talk a little more about Gov. Bush’s role in ExcelinEd?
Levesque: Gov. Bush made education a priority during his eight years as Florida’s governor. He believed that improving education was the key to improving everything about the state—the economy, health care, juvenile justice, criminal justice—everything. He’s dedicated his time after office, through ExcelinEd, to continuing to transform education at the state level—not just for children in the Sunshine State but on behalf of students across our country. He believes every child is a gift and that states are the incubators of innovation. So, our work is focused to make sure states have the tools that provide children with every opportunity to reach their God-given potential.
Hess: Gov. Bush is a prominent Republican voice. Amidst all that’s happened this year in education, public health, politics, and the Republican party, how do stay focused on the mission?
Levesque: Turn off the TV and stay off social media would be my personal advice. But, in all seriousness, we focus on state-level work—where leaders can work across the aisle and real progress, real results can be achieved. To ensure progress on behalf of students, we seek out and work with partners and champions from across the political spectrum. We may not agree on everything, but we can respect one another’s positions and we can find agreement in certain areas. That’s enough to make a difference in the lives of students. Rather than focusing on what sets us apart, it’s important to listen, to focus on the challenges that we can work on together, and to forge partnerships where there’s alignment on the solutions. Despite the divisiveness we’ve seen this year at the federal level, there is room for optimism, especially in the states where we know thoughtful and courageous leaders can—and do—work with the “opposition” to put sound public policy before politics. That gives me a lot of hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.