Viewpoint: Jeb Bush Wants to Talk About Education

School reform is a political hot potato, and the former Florida governor can’t get enough of it

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Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush attends Mitt Romney victory campaign Rally at Bank United Center on Oct. 31, 2012 in Miami, Fla.
Vallery Jean / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at a campaign rally for Mitt Romney in Miami on Oct. 31, 2012.

Last week was my first time at Jebfest. That’s how some insiders have started referring to the annual education-reform summit Jeb Bush organizes. For five years now, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education has been gathering current and former governors, superintendents and policymakers, business leaders and educational vendors, nonprofit executives and think-tank types who may disagree on many things but are united in their desire to reform education.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Why the 2012 Election Has Compromised Education Reform.)

The meeting last week in Washington attracted people from both sides of the aisle, ranging from hard-core adherents of Bush’s education ideas to reform-minded analysts like me who support some of what his foundation is doing but are skeptical of other aspects. (One area we agree on is the promise of the new Common Core state standards; I’m a partner at a nonprofit that was hired to analyze Common Core implementation for Chiefs for Change, a network of state schools chiefs sponsored by Bush’s foundation.) The conference organizers asked me to moderate a session at the summit with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, where we discussed plans for President Obama’s second term, the challenges facing Hispanic students, and education politics. And I also sat down for a private interview with Bush to talk about his views on education and the current political landscape. Here are some of the highlights from the interview, which includes his thoughts on education and poverty, his discomfort with being called a centrist and a key policy issue where he parts ways with his brother George.

Why your emphasis on education?

There is now increasing, irrefutable evidence linking our country’s prosperity to education outcomes.  We’ve lost our leadership in education, and now we’re one of the least socially mobile countries in the world. You can directly link it to a variety of factors, but the solution has to include transformational education reform.I’ve believed that for a long while. Combine that with being governor, where we got a chance to implement pretty meaningful broad-based education reform and, seeing the results, it kind of cements my passion for this. [The foundation] started more to defend the reforms we had in place, but it’s gone way beyond that.

What grade would you give President Obama on education?

A passing grade. Which is better than I’d give him on economic policy or budget policy. He has a heart for kids.  And he has Arne Duncan, and I think Arne deserves praise.

If you were still a governor, would you have applied to compete in the President’s Race to the Top reform competition for states?

Yes. And I would have been upset that Florida didn’t win in the first round. If it’s rewarding the best efforts, we should have been first in line.

Florida’s request this year for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability measures sparked controversy because it proposed lowering interim targets based on race. What did you think of it?

Not well handled. It appeared like they were saying they were okay with having a lower percentage of African Americans [pass the state’s test in the long run]. Turns out that’s not the case. Clumsy in its presentation.

(MORE: Read an interview with George W. Bush on the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind.)

I don’t think there needs to be a [school accountability] requirement based on race. If you’re going to pick anything, pick poverty. [Florida’s] system is better in that it has an extra focus on the lowest[-performing] 25 percent.

I get tired of hearing people, well-meaning people, talking about African-American kids or Hispanic kids as if they’re all the same. Which isn’t true. There is a very diverse group of people in both groups in terms of income, objectives in life, aspirations, cultural wants, habits, all the things that make us unique Americans. This identity politics is unhealthy in education policy. It started under our previous president.

What’s the role of poverty in education?

I would reverse the question: education impacts poverty, not the other way around. If we don’t empower families to be able to have a quality education, then their children for the first time in American history, truly the first time, will not have the same economic opportunities. That’s not speculation. The evidence is in.

There are other reasons why people are poor. There are cultural reasons, economic competitiveness reasons. There are a lot of reasons why people are in poverty. The difference today is that increasingly they are in perpetual poverty. That is so un-American and such a tragedy.

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To me there are several ways to get out of this. One is to have a spiritual revival. I’m not an expert on that, way above my pay grade, but that’s one path historically we’ve seen, where wholesome, loving family life changes the course and direction of children’s plight and their future. Or building a high-growth economy where there are opportunities across the economic ladder, changing job training programs and things like that.

But without transforming the education system, where there’s access to high quality education, it doesn’t matter the zip code in which you live — I think we’re trapping a whole generation, not just kids at the poverty level. That is so dangerous for a country like ours that is based on the exact opposite premise.

Your father tried to put states on a path toward adopting national standards for schools. He couldn’t pull it off and neither could Clinton. Your brother managed to increase accountability, but even that was watered down. Every time there’s been a push to improve school standards, a left-right coalition against reform emerged. Is there a center? And if so, can it hold?

Yeah, there is a center. We’re a part of it if you call it a center.  I’m getting nervous to be called a centrist. Breaking out in a rash. I’ve been accused of that now three or four times today. I’m pretty damn conservative to be honest with you.

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There are people on the right who are fearful of federal encroachment. That fear, I don’t think is justified, although there is enough history behind federal encroachment for everybody to be diligent. On the left, they see these higher standards being implemented in a way that shows that children are not learning and the unions are fearful that that exposure, which is real and truthful, will put them in a vulnerable position politically.

So do alliances of mutual convenience based on powerful emotions and economic interests trump a perhaps broader but more passive [movement] to date? That’s the question. I don’t know the answer, but I know where I stand.