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Jeb Bush’s Entry Into Presidential Contest Would Put K-12 Front and Center

By Alyson Klein — December 16, 2014 3 min read
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It’s official! Well, sorta. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will “actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States” in 2016, according to Facebook post he published Tuesday morning.

The Republican’s announcement is an early Christmas present for education policy/politics nerds. There is probably no prospective candidate in either party more closely identified with K-12 education policy.

Whether you agree with Bush’s positions on things like school choice and the Common Core State Standards or not, his entrance into the race would exponentially raise the profile of K-12 education, which is often an afterthought in national campaigns. He was one of the most active governors on education in recent history and after leaving office even started an organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, that’s geared towards K-12 policy.

Especially interesting if you’re an edu-policy geek: Bush doesn’t see eye-to-eye with many of the more conservative members of his party on what’s arguably the biggest K-12 political issue of the day, the common core standards.

That’s not something he’s backed away from. Bush launched a spirited defense of common core last month, telling an audience his annual National Summit for the Foundation for Excellence in Education that it’s fine if states don’t want to adopt the standards, but if they don’t, they should aim even higher. China, he said, isn’t in the midst of a hot debate about whether “academic expectations should be lowered to protect students’ self-esteem.”

But some of Bush’s potential rivals for the GOP nomination already seem to be planning to use his support for the common core as a campaign cudgel. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another possible presidential contender, said recently he doesn’t understand why any Republican who is serious about being the GOP nominee would back common core—that seemed like an early, precampaign jab at Bush.

What’s more, other GOP hopefuls seem to be sprinting away from the standards—even if they initially supported common core. Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana has actually filed a legal complaint involving common-core-aligned tests. And Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has said he’ll work to end the Badger State’s involvement in the initiative next year.

Common core isn’t, of course, the only K-12 policy that’s closely associated with Bush. He’s an ardent supporter of school choice—he championed a program in the Sunshine State that extended vouchers to students in special education. And he was the main education adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Romney made school choice the centerpiece of his K-12 platform, pushing a plan that would have allowed federal dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.

Bush is also a fan of using technology to improve educational outcomes, and merit-pay for teachers.

Bush’s influence hasn’t been confined to Florida. After leaving office, he took his K-12 policy show on the road, calling on lawmakers in other states to lend support to vouchers and charter schools. And he was the “godfather” to Chiefs for Change, a now-somewhat-foundering organization for education-redesign-oriented state chiefs.

Chiefs for Change helped bring some major changes to K-12 accountability through its members’ state waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. Chiefs participating in the group proposed changes including “supersubgroups,” which combined different populations for accountability purposes, and state systems that rate schools on an A through F scale, an idea first popularized in Florida, under Bush.

Of course, you can’t get away from the fact that Bush’s last name is ... well, Bush. His brother, former President George W. Bush. was one of the most active presidents on education in U.S. history—he’s the signer and architect of the now much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, which represented an expansion of the federal role in K-12 policy.

So you have to wonder what kind of ribbing Possible Future President Jeb Bush would get around the Thanksgiving dinner table if he signed NCLB law reauthorization legislation that significantly watered down what his big bro’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, termed “muscular accountability”?

At a time when some Republicans seem ready to run away from the federal mandate for annual statewide assessments, Bush defended testing in his recent, wide-ranging speech on K-12 policy in Washington last month.

“I believe testing is critical. We need to measure to identify students and schools that are struggling so we can get them the support and resources needed to help them improve. But, we should have fewer and better tests,” he said.