Most of the media attention will focus on his comments on Common Core, but Jeb Bush’s opening remarks at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s national summit were more revealing of his mindset and leadership strengths.

George P. Bush, right, reacts as his father, Jeb Bush, gestures during an interview in Abilene, Tex. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

It is evident that for Bush, education is not simply one issue among a discrete grab bag of policy proposals, but the core of his vision for the country. After an inspirational introduction by Denisha Merriweather, a student who benefited from the school choice tax credit program begun when Bush was governor of Florida, he laid out his conviction that education is the single most important anti-poverty program:

Fully 70 percent of people raised at the bottom levels of household income earn below the average of American incomes for the rest of their lives. For them it becomes harder and harder to make a living and lead a productive life. Harder to start and grow a business. Harder to raise a family. And while there are lots of reasons for this, from tax policy to energy policy to overregulation, it starts with access to a quality education with learning how to read, becoming proficient in math and understanding science. Education is the great equalizer.

A math problem doesn’t care whether you were born into privilege or poverty. A great piece of literature doesn’t know if readers went to a fancy college. The periodic table of elements doesn’t worry whether you spoke English, Spanish or Haitian Creole at home. If you learn something, it is portable wealth – and nobody can take that away from you. But if we buy the excuses, if we let kids struggle, if we herd them into failing schools, how can we expect young people to grasp those first rungs of opportunity?

That is why the challenge of fixing our schools must be among the most urgent of national priorities. Let’s agree on this: This isn’t just about saving Denisha and amazing students like her. Education reform is about renewing this country. It is about protecting and promoting the right to rise.

Bush’s mastery of the subject matter is clear, and he plainly has a granular knowledge of the problem and the latest ideas on reform. In Florida, Bush recounted, he “implemented a bold suite of reforms, starting with the A+ Plan for Education when I first became governor in 1999. Florida went from a national failure to a Top 10 state in education. Today, [Florida’s] low-income fourth graders lead their peers in every other state in reading, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Our Hispanic fourth graders do better than or equal to the average student in 34 states and D.C. Our African American fourth graders have advanced 2½ grade levels in reading since our reforms began. We are a national leader in providing disadvantaged students access to Advanced Placement classes.”

Meanwhile, American children are falling behind — way behind — their foreign counterparts. “[I]n an international report card on education performance, students from Shanghai ranked number one. Students from the US ranked 21st in reading and 31st in math.  The point is this: an over-riding concern for self-esteem instead of high expectations doesn’t help you get to number 1. It gets you to 21.”

Bush’s proposals are conservative, state-oriented and rigorous. They are in the true sense anti-establishment. “Education reform, with accountability, transparency and choice, is now in its third decade. All that’s been done and all that can be done in the future will require bold leadership from the people in this room. Abundant choices for parents; a 21st century teaching profession; and the full embrace of digital learning will require changes in laws, rules and regulations. Most of the time, it will require a political fight. Monopolies don’t go quietly into the night.”

Bush remains an advocate for devolving educational power to the states and ultimately to parents. (“So if the federal government wants to play a role in reform, it should stop tying every education dollar to a rule written in Washington D.C. They should make more programs – IDEA, Title One, early childhood programs – into block grants that the states can deploy as they see fit, including vouchers to enhance state programs. In my view, every education dollar should depend on what the child needs, not what the federal bureaucrat wants.”)

But Bush is also focused on what goes on inside public classrooms. He told the audience, “So let’s get real. Only a quarter of our high school graduates who took the ACT are fully prepared for college. More than half who attend community college need to take some kind of remedial course. 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled because we haven’t trained enough people with those skills. And almost a third of high school graduates fail the military entrance exam. Given this reality, there is no question we need higher academic standards and — at the local level — diverse high-quality content and curricula.”

Yes, we need to push back on teachers unions, update technology and “measure to identify students and schools that are struggling so we can get them the support and resources needed to help them improve.” Bush also wants “fewer and better tests.” But you cannot talk seriously about school reform and ignore standards.

This is where Common Core comes in. It has become the shiny object in mindless talking points and talk-show histrionics rather than one methodology for increasing school standards. Bush argued:

[I]n my view, the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms. For those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: Aim even higher … be bolder … raise standards and ask more of our students and the system.
Because I know they have the potential to deliver it. Even if we don’t all agree on Common Core, there are more important principles for us to agree on. We need to pull together whenever we can.

It was a typical Jeb Bush speech — wonky, upbeat and without rancor. As for hints about his presidential ambitions, there were none. He has said he will decide at year’s end, and apparently he is giving no winks and nods beforehand. If he runs, he will be a formidable candidate whose penchant for reform is unmatched. If he does not, he should be the standard against which the 2016 field should be judged.