Now that Jeb Bush seems likely to run for president in 2016, inevitable comparisons will be made between his approach to education reform — a focus of his efforts when he was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and afterward — and that of his brother George W. Bush, who made the No Child Left Behind law a key initiative when he was president.
In fact, such comparisons already are being made.
Both Bush brothers, of course, famously embraced standardized testing as a key “accountability” measure for schools. George W. Bush’s NCLB, which he signed into law in 2002, mandated standardized testing annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. Jeb Bush instituted a testing system in Florida that used students’ scores to evaluate schools with A-F letter grades.
But there is a key difference between the brothers.
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine about Jeb Bush by Alec MacGillis, a former Washington Post reporter, looks at his educational legacy and pinpoints that difference: George W. Bush tried to help improve public schools as governor of Texas and then president (even if critics say his emphasis on standardized tests was destructive and his No Child Left Behind law was a train wreck). His brother, as governor of Texas and then as an education reform advocate nationwide, has pushed the privatization of public education.
The story says in part:
Governors around the country were taking up education reform, but the Bushes were prominent in the field. George W. Bush had initiated his program four years earlier, but it essentially built on Ann Richards’s measures to help struggling schools, such as insuring that they got adequate funding, and it had bipartisan support. It was also far less aggressive — it emphasized testing, but included fewer penalties for failing schools and steered clear of vouchers. Sandy Kress, who was a senior education adviser to George W. Bush in the White House, said that he “really thought this is mainly about improving public schools.”
Jeb’s program, by contrast, was of a piece with his larger agenda to privatize state-run services, from prisons to Medicaid. He also recognized the long-term political benefits of upending the system. According to Jim Warford, a county school superintendent in North Florida, whom Bush selected to be his K-12 schools chancellor in 2003, “He saw the teachers’ unions as one of the foundations of the Democratic Party, and he saw a great advantage — that anything he could do to undercut the teachers’ union would have a political return.”
. . . Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Florida, laments Bush’s legacy of privatized education. “I wish this experiment were taking place somewhere other than Florida,” he told me. Alex Villalobos, a former Republican state-senate majority leader who sparred with Bush over vouchers, shared that sentiment: “If the issue is you have failing public schools, then how is taking more money away from public education and giving it to private entities that are not accountable going to help public schools?”
Indeed, Jeb Bush doesn’t call public schools public schools. They are, rather, “government-run monopolies run by unions,” or “government-run, politicized, unionized monopolies.”
While Florida governor, he supported the growth of for-profit charter schools and ran roughshod over the notion of local control of education when he signed a law in 2002 that, as MacGillis noted, permitted operators of charter schools who have failed to win approval to open from a local school to appeal to the state. He supported using public money for private school tuition in voucher and voucher-like programs — and as an ex-governor, he has used his two education foundations to push his “Florida Formula” of reforms — which include charter expansion and assigning schools letter grades based on test scores — nationwide.
So how much will Jeb Bush’s positions on education reform affect a presidential campaign should he decide to run in 2016 (as looks likely at the moment)?
Conventional wisdom is that they will matter a lot, especially in the Republican primaries over his support for the Common Core State Standards. The Core has become highly controversial and many conservatives consider it a prime example of what they call federal overreach. The Obama administration did not technically mandate the standards but, rather, pushed states to adopt them in exchange for federal funding and No Child Left Behind waivers, and then spent $360 million on new Common Core tests.
Jeb Bush has started making a distinction between his support for the Core standards and the Obama administration’s link between the standards and federal aid. Will that work with conservative GOP primary voters? It just might.