No one can accuse Jeb Bush of abandoning substance in a presidential campaign that is increasingly dominated by candidates like Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who harbor only passing concerns with policy. “Hey, I’m a substantial guy,” Bush jokes in a phone interview. “I think ideas have consequences.” Bush is now rolling out an education plan, reflecting his passion and interest in the subject and one of his strong suits as governor of Florida.
“If you look at the common theme across all [his policy ideas], it is to empower people and take power away from the federal government.” That said, Bush’s plan reflects his preference for a limited but vibrant federal government.
The plan contains a host of conservative reform ideas. In a background briefing white paper, he explains that his plan would be a “a complete overhaul of a system from one that serves bureaucracies to one that serves the needs of families and students and is based on four conservative principles: 1) education decisions should be made as close to the student as possible; 2) choice of all kinds should be expanded, 3) transparency is essential to accountability; and 4) innovation requires flexibility. ” This includes expanded 529 education accounts; a new flexible education account that would replace a mishmash of federal programs with a $2,500 annual scholarship in the Education Savings Acccount (ESA) of every low-income child under age 5.
On K-12 education, Bush wants to greatly expand school choice by allowing parents to use Title I funds to spend in a school of their liking. Bush also says he will require states to disclose data to parents about their school’s achievement records and finances while maintaining flexibility for schools. Bush has supported the recently passed reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which he tells me is “a good first step.” Bush builds on that legislation, which attempts to end anti-Common Core hysteria and make clear the federal government cannot mandate curriculum or standards. As for teachers, Bush’s plan promises to reward schools whose teachers achieve good results for low-income students. Bush says his plan is “outcome-driven and based on student achievement.”
On the higher education front, Bush — like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — favors expanding the range of alternatives to four-year colleges (online certificates, apprenticeships, etc.). Bush explains that under his plan, “The federal government provides more options with [529 and ESA] accounts. The relevance of a four-year degree [to hiring] is valid, but some career-oriented education can in some cases generate higher wages than a liberal arts degree can.”
His plan also states that he would require colleges to set up “databases so every student can see the average unemployment rate, earnings, graduation rates and debt repayment rate of programs they are considering.” He wants to reform the student loan program by, for example, making the schools partially responsible for unpaid debt. Other proposals include giving “all high school graduates access to a $50,000 line of credit through their … ESA to pay for college and career training. For every $10,000 spent, students would repay 1 percent of their income for 25 years.” Bush tells me that for students under the existing system, “They can opt in for income-based repayment. I think most would take the income repayment. It’s a better deal.”
Results from the school reform movement have been mixed at best. Bush says, “We’ve plateaued for a variety of reasons. For one thing, K-12 schools haven’t delivered college-ready, career-ready students.” He often talks about increased graduation rates as a misleading indicator of progress. If the requirements for getting a high school diploma are “dumbed down,” he says, we are not accomplishing much. He also says, “College is too expensive.” A federal student aid system encourages debt and subsidizes tuition increases. “There is nothing magic about higher ed,” he says, to justify yearly increases of 7 to 8 percent.
On the subject of affirmative action, Bush eliminated race as a factor in Florida admissions. He says, “We can figure out a better way to make sure African American and Hispanic students attain a college degree.” He argues improvements in K-12 and the funding mechanisms he recommends will open up opportunities for minority students. I also asked him whether college athletics are compromising schools’ educational mission. He tells me that issue has been batted around the campaign. He comes down in favor of keeping the college sports system. “College football and basketball are part of college life. It’s unique in the world. It’s one way to draw alumni back to the university,” he says. “It’s a way to connect to the broader community.” He adds, “For a lot of kids, but for college sports they wouldn’t be going to college.”
Bush’s plan and general approach to education reflect his belief that the federal government has an active role to play, but a limited one, in education. Bush has credibility on the subject dating to his days as a governor when he set up the country’s first charter school program, a teacher merit pay plan and a requirement to grade all schools (A-F) for effectiveness. Bush is hoping that voters will reward him for his sober ideas, ignoring the raucous fights going on among his competitors. Bush is an underdog for the nomination at this point, but his ideas are worth adopting by any Republican who makes it to the White House. And few people would be a better pick than Bush for education secretary.