At the core of the Jeb Bush agenda are ideas drawn from his Florida playbook: Give every public school a grade from A to F. Offer students vouchers to help pay for private school. Don’t let them move into fourth grade unless they know how to read.
Through two foundations he leads in Florida and his vast political connections, Jeb Bush is advancing such policies in states where Republicans have sought his advice on improving schools. His stature in the party and widening role in state-level legislation make him one of the foremost GOP voices on education.
“He is the standard-bearer,” said Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. “Those governors who are going to have religion on education reform are looking to him to be their mentor.”
With Bush’s support, several states are embracing letter grades for schools. This week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed bills to launch A-to-F school rating systems in their states, following similar actions in Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana. A voucher bill is moving through the Indiana legislature. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who met with Bush this week, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) are promoting education agendas that echo what Bush calls the “Florida formula.”
Some Democrats are finding common ground with Bush on schools, even though their party scorns his family name.
President Obama joined Bush on March 4 at a Miami high school that the ex-governor had suggested as a turnaround success story. John Hickenlooper invited Bush to his Denver home in December — shortly before the Democrat was sworn in as Colorado governor — to talk about reading programs and mentoring youths. Former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D) teamed up with Bush last year on a national initiative to expand digital learning.
Seeking a bridge
For Obama, who opposes vouchers but encourages teacher performance pay and charter schools, Bush represents a bridge to conservative Republicans who say the federal government meddles too much in schools. Bush is angling to empower states, but he accepts that Washington has a role in formulating education policy — and that Obama’s views are not too far from his own. On that subject, Bush wants a political truce.
“On education issues, the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bush said in a recent interview in Washington. “He cares about students. My attitude is, on the things where there isn’t a fundamental disagreement, it seems to me we ought to pause, celebrate that and find ways to build on it.”
Activism in education could pay off for Bush, 58, if he seeks to succeed his father and brother in the White House. But Bush waves off questions about presidential ambition, veering into wonkish talk about the importance of longitudinal student data.