Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recites the Pledge of Allegiance before speaking at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Nov. 20 in Washington, DC. Bush was the opening speaker at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform conference. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) offered a nuanced defense of the Common Core State Standards during a speech Thursday in Washington, trying to mend the divide within the GOP over the standards as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid.

“I respect those who have weighed in,” said Bush, who is in the minority among the GOP’s top-tier potential presidential candidates when it comes to support for the Common Core, a set of K-12 standards in reading and math that has been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia. “Nobody in this debate has a bad motive.”

Bush, 61, spoke at the annual summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he founded after leaving office in 2007 to promote his education agenda around the country.

Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) both back the Common Core standards, but opponents include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R- Tex.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Jindal was once a strong supporter of the Common Core standards but now is fighting with his own state education leaders in an effort to drop them.

Jindal is also suing the Obama administration, claiming that the federal government coerced states to adopt the standards by making adoption of higher standards a requirement for states that wanted to compete for federal grants.

Among the general population, support for the Common Core standards has been mixed, according to several public opinion polls. Democrats tend to support them more than Republicans. Political strategists say if Bush can survive the GOP primary process, he could emerge a stronger candidate in the general election candidate if he stands by his education agenda.

A bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs created the Common Core State Standards in math and reading in 2010 as a way to inject consistency into K-12 academic standards, which have varied wildly from state to state. The standards spell out the skills and knowledge students should possess by the end of each grade. They are not curriculum — states and schools decide how to teach to the standards and the kinds of materials to use.

Two GOP-controlled states, Oklahoma and South Carolina, have opted to drop the standards, while others are considering revisions.

In his speech Thursday, Bush didn’t address the specific criticisms of the Common Core but instead stressed that the nation needs to raise academic expectations for K-12 students.

“This morning, over 213 million Chinese students went to school and nobody debated over whether academic standards should be lowered to protect their self-esteem,” he said. “Yet in Orange County, Florida, that exact debate did occur. And so the school board voted to make it impossible for a student to receive a grade below a 50. You get 50 out of 100 just for showing up and signing your name. This was done, and I quote here from a local official, so the students ‘do not lose all hope.’ ”

“But in an international report card on education performance, students from Shanghai ranked number one,” he said. “Students from the U.S. ranked 21st in reading and 31st in math. The point is this: An overriding concern for self-esteem instead of high expectations doesn’t help you get to number one. It gets you to 21. So let’s get real.”

States that want to dump the Common Core standards should replace them with even more rigorous benchmarks, Bush said.

“There is no question we need higher academic standards and — at the local level — diverse, high-quality content and curricula,” he said. “And in 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.”

As governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, Bush remade the state’s education system, pushing through a law that assigned schools letter grades based on test scores and a requirement that third graders pass a reading test in order to advance to fourth grade. He also promoted a plan for taxpayer-funded private-school vouchers for low-income students, which was struck down by state courts. And he pushed to expand public charter schools and online learning.

After leaving government, Bush used his foundation as a lever to influence education policy and laws in scores of GOP-controlled states. The foundation receives heavy financial support from major education corporations including K12 Inc., the Reston-based for-profit online learning company and Pearson, the world’s largest standardized testing company.

“We have built a nationwide reform movement based on a set of proven principles,” Bush told the gathering of several hundred state policy leaders, charter school managers and executives from education companies. “Of course, choice is at the center of our reform efforts. But there are others:

“High standards. Rigorous, high-quality assessments. Accountability for school leaders.

“Early childhood literacy and ending social promotion. Digital and distance learning. Transparency for parents to see whether their schools are getting better or getting worse.”

He lambasted teachers unions, casting them as obstacles to progress that try to lock students in struggling schools:

“If we were designing our school system from scratch, what would it look like? I know one thing: We wouldn’t start with more than 13,000 government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system nobody can escape. We would be insane if we recreated what we have today.”

Bush was introduced by Denisha Merriweather, who grew up in poverty in Jacksonville, Fla., and got a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private parochial school where she flourished. Merriweather, whose story was shown in a video before she appeared, recently graduated from the University of West Florida. About 70,000 students are attending private schools in Florida with vouchers from the program.

The program is under a legal challenge by a coalition including the teachers unions, the association of school administrators, clergy associated with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the PTA, the Florida NAACP and League of Women Voters. They argue the program funnels public money into unregulated private schools, diverting tax dollars that otherwise would support the system of free public schools required by the state constitution.

Bush took broad swipes Thursday at both the Obama administration and the expanded federal role in education that began under his brother, George W. Bush, who as president signed into law No Child Left Behind, the 2002 legislation designed to hold states accountable for educating children.

“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.,” Bush said. “They should make more programs — IDEA, Title I, 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,” he said. “Where the child goes, the dollars should go as well. When that happens, we’ll see major reforms and major gains for America’s children and the federal government will go back to playing the supportive and completely secondary role it should be playing.”