By Sean Cavanagh
Jeb Bush, whose political aspirations are a favorite source of speculation in this city, urged attendees at an education conference he organized to act as aggressive champions of contentious school policies—regardless of the political fallout.
The former Republican Florida governor spoke on the opening day of the fifth annual national summit hosted by an advocacy organization he leads, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
That group is devoted to promoting a schools agenda that closely mirrors the often divisive one that Bush backed while in office, pieces of which have since been emulated in Republican-led states around the country.
"This is a big fight," Bush said. "This is not a happy place if you [want] to be advocating big things."
Bush joked that when he hosted the first summit five years ago, he worried that no one would show up.
On Tuesday, Bush spoke to a packed house at a downtown hotel in the nation's capital, promoting his favored policies in areas such as private school vouchers, test-based accountability, tougher forms of teacher evaluation, and school technology. The receptive audience included current and former officeholders, business and philanthropic officials, state schools chiefs, and others.
The former governor depicted the need to improve the United States' education system in stark terms, arguing that dismal school performance in too many of the nation's districts leads to increased crime and squandered economic opportunities, hurts families, and threatens the country's standing in the world. Of the principle that individuals can improve their standing and rise from poverty through education, Bush said: "It's going away. It's leaving us."
Many in the GOP had hoped Bush, 59, would run for president in 2012. He declined, but some party loyalists now hope to lure him into the race in 2016, when Barack Obama will be leaving office.
Bush made no mention of that chatter during his speech. He repeatedly warned elected officials and others against settling for politically popular education policies—at one point invoking the work of a Democrat, former President Lyndon Johnson, in promoting civil rights and other policies, as an example of leadership in the face of broad opposition.
"There will be pushbacks galore, going forward," he said. He cited controversial efforts by states to move away from paying teachers based mostly on longevity to systems in which educators are evaluated on student improvement.
"There are tire marks on a whole lot of people's foreheads in this room that have challenged this notion," Bush said.
The Floridian specifically singled out Indiana state schools chief Tony Bennett, a conference attendee, who along with Gov. Mitch Daniels successfully shepherded policies on vouchers, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and other areas in their state, an agenda influenced by Bush's work in Florida. Bennett lost his bid for re-election earlier this month.
"Doing what's right is not necessarily politically rewarded all the time," Bush said of Bennett, to applause from the audience.
Bush also praised states that he said are standing firm on creating strong standards and tests, despite public pressure to back down. When test scores are low, opponents vilify the tests, or "kill the messenger," Bush said, rather than looking inward.
He credited Kentucky officials for creating new tests based on the Common Core State Standard—standards that Bush supports, despite opposition among some conservatives. Test scores in Kentucky have plummeted, but Bush said the state is wisely shining a light on students' academic weaknesses.
It's not as if the students in Kentucky are suddenly collapsing academically, Bush said. "Far from getting dumber, the students in Kentucky are on their way to getting smarter," he said, because more is being demanded of them. "It will take some adjustment, but our kids will rise to the challenge of the new standards, if we give them the opportunity and schools to do it."
As Florida governor, Bush's voucher policies were challenged in the courts, and similar court battles are underway in many states.
A Louisiana court yesterday ruled that a sweeping, newly created voucher program created this year is unconstitutional. That decision will be appealed, said Louisiana state Sen. Conrad Appel, a Republican who backs the program and who spoke at a panel discussion on tax credit voucher programs.
In New Hampshire, a similar, Republican-backed tax-credit program was recently approved over a veto by Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat. But because of opponents' gains in the November election, that measure is now in peril, said New Hampshire state Speaker of the House William O'Brien, who spoke on the same panel as Appel.
"Our assumption is it's going to be repealed," O'Brien said. It's "two steps forward, three steps back."