GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush talked school vouchers, college affordability, and immigration Tuesday morning at a town hall meeting with high school students at La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami.
The private religious school was opened by immigrants in 1971 after it was shuttered in Cuba by Fidel Castro. It serves the community of Little Havana with preschool through high school, and nearly every student that attends covers tuition and fees with funding from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.
The Step up for Students scholarship, which was instituted while Bush was governor for two terms from 1999 to 2007, provides qualifying low-income families with up to $4,300 of financial assistance per child, nearly enough to cover the $510 monthly tuition fee at La Progresiva.
“It allows your parents to make a choice they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Bush said of the scholarship to the crowd of about 100 students, nearly all Hispanic. “By empowering your parents ... all schools get better. That’s the story of the Florida education experience.”
The voucher program was originally part of his most notable education reform, the A-Plus Plan, which also required schools to be held accountable using A-F letter grades, and established a new series of standardized tests to measure students’ academic performance.
But the Florida Supreme Court struck down the vouchers as unconstitutional in 2006. Then, in 2001, Bush signed into law a tax-credit scholarship program that has grown into the largest single school choice program of any state in the country as measured by the number of participating students, with about 70,000 low-income students using them in the most recent school year.
“Because of the efforts of reforms that we had, particularly school choice, we’ve now increased the graduation rate by 50 percent,” he said at the event that was streamed online. “That means more kids are going to college, more kids can get a job. ... I’m proud of being associated with the reforms your parents have benefited from.”
In order to graduate from La Progresiva, students must take the SAT or ACT exam and apply to at least one postsecondary program by the end of the first semester of 12th grade.
Naturally, students were interested in Bush’s plans to make college affordable and whether he thought two-year degrees or technical programs were worthwhile.
Bush, who said he plans to unveil a sweeping college affordability plan next month, said he supports community college, associate degrees, and technical post-secondary programs—all of which he said could help right the skills gap that’s left about 3 million jobs unfilled.
“College is not affordable in many places,” he said. “Here we’re lucky. In Florida we have lower tuition costs than many states.”
Bush, who has the most extensive and complicated track record in education among all the Republican presidential hopefuls, also has one of the most interesting backgrounds when it comes to his stances on immigration.
He lives in the immigrant-heavy city of Miami with his wife, who is Mexican. He’s empathized with those who’ve crossed the border illegally out of wanting a better life for their families: “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
He made that statement, which is now being used against him by GOP presidential opponents, back in 2014.
And in a school that was founded by immigrants, immigration was a hot topic for the students Tuesday.
The first question on immigration was asked in Spanish, a language that this reporter doesn’t speak. Bush gave a lengthy reply in Spanish, in which he is fluent, that included a refernce to DREAMers—undocumented immigrants, brought to the country by their parents when they were kids. He showed more passion in answering this question than any other, and his response garnered lots of nods of agreement, laughs, smiles, and a loud applause from students.
Here’s are a two tweets about Bush’s answer from Miama Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei, who speaks Spanish and was at the event:
The second question on immigration came from a high school senior who wanted to know whether Bush supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“There should be a path to legal status,” he clarified, adding that those here illegally could become legal citizens by coming forward, paying a fine and getting in line behind those who are waiting entry.
“They would [have to] pay taxes, not commit crimes, not receive government assistance, and they wouldn’t cut the line of people who are waiting.”
Bush also said he would find a way to secure the border and expand the guest worker program so that people could move back and forth across the border for work.
“A path to legal status over an extended period of time is the way to do this,” he said.