Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Education Could Hurt Jeb Bush’s 2016 Presidential Chances

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 15, 2013.


Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 15, 2013.

Two 2016 presidential horse race stories posit that former Gov. Jeb Bush’s stock is down following the recent resignation of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and Florida and Indiana lawmakers questioning the veracity of the A-to-F school grading systems Bush pioneered.

Bush hasn’t said whether or not he intends to run in 2016.

Bush built his gubernatorial legacy on a suite of education policies — largely built around Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results — to assess student progress and school performance. But both stories argue two issues could turn that perceived strength into a weakness in a Republican presidential primary.

The first is Bennett, and his efforts to boost the grade of a prominent Indiana charter school. Emails published by the Associated Press showed Bennett, while Indiana’s elected state superintendent, and staff discussing how to improve the grade of Christel House Academy.

The emails are part of the conversation as Indiana reexamines its A-through-F grading formula, and an initial review from the new Democratic superintendent found evidence of “verified manipulation.” Bennett is a Bush protege, and was the former governor’s preference to lead Florida schools last year.

Here’s The Miami Herald on Bush’s clout in Florida:

Bush’s influence has remained strong in Florida. But there is evidence that he may be losing clout.This spring, Bush and the Foundation for Florida’s Future were unable to pass the parent trigger bill, which would have allowed parents to demand changes at low-performing schools. They suffered another defeat last month, when the state Board of Education approved a “safety-net” to prevent school grades from dropping dramatically in the wake of new, more challenging student state exams. The foundation had argued that artificial inflation would undermine the grading system.

“The long sleep is now over,” said Kathleen Oropeza, of the Orlando-based parent group Fund Education Now. “People are starting to realize that Jeb and his reforms are not good for children and not good for schools. They are meant to privatize public education.”

The second potential presidential landmine for Bush is Common Core, which are shared education standards fully adopted by Florida and 44 other states. The standards are intended to be more challenging and to require students demonstrate a deeper knowledge of fewer, central concept in math and English language arts.

Common Core is scheduled to be used in every Florida classroom beginning just over a year from now. As the deadline approaches, a rising number of folks on the political right and left are concerned about the standards.

Those on the right worry the standards will centralize education and limit local control. They’re concerned the federal government has offered money to states which adopt Common Core. And they’ve questioned the content of the standards.

On the left, the concerns are an increasing amount of standardized testing and a top-down approach to education which reduces the control teachers have over their classrooms.

Here’s Politico on what Common Core means to GOP primary voters:

But Bush also faces more visceral opposition that could sway voters, especially in Republican primaries. At its crux: Fury over Common Core.

Many establishment Republicans support Common Core, as do business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. Yet tea-party conservatives see it as a federal infringement on local control over education. Prominent commentators such as Michelle Malkin have ripped into Bush for his Common Core advocacy. In Florida, several top Republican legislators have urged the state to pull out of a national consortium developing Common Core-aligned exams.

Republican activist Shane Vander Hart, who has been organizing opposition to Common Core in Iowa, says Bush’s position is likely to be “a negative with the grassroots Republicans” who participate in the state’s presidential caucus. “It’s a stain on his record as an education reformer,” he said.

But while an active, engaged opposition to Common Core has taken hold in Florida and other states, the standards still aren’t on the radar of a lot of parents yet. That will change when students start taking tests and the percentage of students meeting state expectations plunges, as has happened in New York and Kentucky.

Activists think Common Core can be as potent an issue for Tea Party voters as the federal health care law dubbed “Obamacare.” The issue isn’t quite there yet, and Common Core still has the support of Republican and Democratic leadership and the business community in Florida and elsewhere.

Education is a complicated issue for presidential politics. Unlike immigration, taxes, or spending, there is no clean split between Republican and Democrats on many education issues. Voters also tend to feel more strongly about other issues.

Parents and students protest outside then-Gov. Jeb Bush's Miami office in this 2003 photo.

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

Parents and students protest outside then-Gov. Jeb Bush's Miami office in this 2003 photo.

Occasionally, those on the right and left wings of the political spectrum join forces to oppose policies supported by the middle. That’s how teachers, led by the union, and Common Core opponents ousted Bennett in Indiana elections last year.

As for Bush’s possible 2016 run, we’d handicap the issues in this priority:

A-to-F grades — This is Bush’s signature policy, one he’s pushing other states to adopt. If the public perception is the grades can’t be trusted then it undermines everything else for which Bush advocated during his two terms as governor and since.

Results in Florida — Last year Florida’s fourth graders scored among the best students in the world on an international reading test. Florida elementary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have also improved since Bush took office (those improvements have not carried over to middle and high schools). Those are very simple and direct talking points.

Common Core — The issue just doesn’t have widespread resonance yet, and parents are most likely to take notice of the standards because of the effect on school grades. Fewer students meeting state expectations will mean fewer A- and B-rated school. Experts say the outrage could be highest in suburban districts which historically earn strong ratings. And finally, it’s also worth noting that Florida may not administer its first Common Core-tied exam until early 2016, which means the Florida presidential primary will likely be long concluded by the time test results are released.


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