Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has laid out the most detailed education plan of any presidential contender in either party, offering a battery of free-market ideas affecting preschool through college and beyond.
“I firmly believe that ensuring every individual has access to a quality education is the great civil rights challenge of our time,” Bush wrote in a post on Medium on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday.
Bush’s 10-page plan echoes many longstanding Republican ideas: cutting the federal influence in local schools, consolidating individual federal programs into block grants to states, allowing federal tax dollars to be used for tuition at private schools, and expanding charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools.
First as governor and then through an education foundation he created after he left office, Bush has sought to influence education policy around the country. Despite polls that show voters care about education, the issue has garnered only passing attention from most of the Republican field to date.
“This platform reflects the fundamental belief that every student can learn and that parents — not bureaucrats — should make decisions for their child,” Bush wrote, calling his plan “revenue neutral.”
Many of Bush’s GOP rivals agree with parts of his agenda. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson want to expand charter schools and allow federal tax dollars to be used for private school vouchers, while N.J. Gov. Chris Christie wants to pay teachers based in part on performance and not tenure.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders want to make college debt-free, and Clinton also promotes universal preschool.
But to date, Bush is the only candidate who has released specific proposals for every level of education from preschool through job training and college.
While Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have pledged to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education entirely, Bush said he would cut the 4,200-employee agency in half.
One topic conspicuously absent from Bush’s detailed plan was any mention of academic standards for K-12.
Bush had been a consistent champion of the Common Core State Standards in math and reading, which have been adopted by most states but have endured a political backlash on the right and on the left. Conservative Republicans have been particularly hostile toward the standards, and Bush has been downplaying his support for the Common Core as he has struggled to gain traction in the GOP race.
A fundamental aspect of Bush’s plan is to transform 529 college savings accounts into “education savings accounts,” to allow families or individuals to save tax-free dollars for what Bush calls "lifelong education:” from preschool through college, as well as for job training, online learning and tutoring.
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute, said it is unlikely that the next president will have much room to maneuver when it comes to K-12 education, since Congress already passed the major overhaul of primary and secondary education in December that significantly reduces federal involvement in the nation’s classrooms. He called Bush’s goal of cutting the U.S. Department of Education by half “aggressive” but possible. Petrilli said Bush’s plans regarding college debt are creative and the most interesting part of his plan.
“But it may all be for naught if his poll numbers don’t start looking better,” Petrilli said. “Still, the plan is a good marker for any center right Republican.”
In early childhood education, Bush wants to combine what he says are 44 different federal programs and allow states to award $2,500 directly to parents to use in the preschool of their choice.
In the K-12 sphere, Bush wants to double federal support for charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Bush has strongly supported charter schools since he founded the first one in Florida — Liberty City Charter School in a poor Miami neighborhood, in 1996 — two years before he was elected governor. The school struggled financially and academically, closing in 2008.
Bush said he wants to continue funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded private school voucher program in the country, and he pledged to “strengthen” the program, but did not elaborate. The voucher program, created by Congress in 2004, gave federal vouchers to low-income students to pay up to $12,572 for high school and $8,381 for elementary school in 2014-2015.
Congressional Democrats and President Obama are opposed to voucher programs, saying that they divert tax dollars from public schools, and the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to shut down the D.C. program.
Bush also wants to change the way the federal government helps fund the education of low-income children. He wants those federal dollars, known as Title 1 funds, to be given to states as block grants, so they have greater freedom to decide how to spend the money.
And he also wants “Title 1 portability,” which means that the federal dollars would “follow the child,” so that if a poor student transferred from a high-poverty school to a more affluent one, the federal money would follow the student to the new “school, course or program of their choice,” including private schools.
That idea, which Gov. Mitt Romney (R) also pitched during his unsuccessful 2012 bid for the White House, is opposed by Democrats, who say it would devastate schools that serve the neediest students. Congress defeated a proposal to include Title 1 portability late last year when it overhauled the nation’s major federal education law.
Bush wants to reward top teachers in a state’s lowest-performing schools and give bonuses to schools that help struggling students make progress.
On the issue of college affordability, Bush proposes to replace the current federal loan system with an income-based program. Under his plan, all high school graduates would get a $50,000 line of credit and repay it with a portion of their future income — 1 percent for every $10,000 spent.
Low-income students also would continue to be eligible for Pell grants and would be notified of their eligibility by 8th grade so that “every child aims high and invests in their future, knowing college is within their reach.”
Income-based repayment system would make federal debt collection “more transparent, simple and fair,” Bush said. He also would allow private student debt to be discharged in bankruptcy.
In cases where a student spends federal dollars at a college, university, workforce training program or apprenticeship and is unable to repay the money, Bush wants the institution to be held responsible for a portion of the unpaid funds. He wrote that by having “skin in the game,” institutions will be feel greater pressure to reduce costs and ensure that students graduate with the skills needed to earn a living.