Politics & Government

Jeb Bush visits Washington to talk about education and economic opportunity

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gives the keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gives the keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. AP

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a speech on Thursday argued that it’s getting harder to make a living and rise above poverty in America, and that a fundamental reason is that too many students don’t have access to a good education.

The possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate said that 60 years after the beginning of desegregation, “our schools don’t meet a high standard for all American children.”

“Too often the bar is set too low and too little is expected of children who could do far more,” he said, speaking at the opening of a conference of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a think thank that he chairs.

“What is in danger here is not public education but the core idea that defines America, what my friend Paul Ryan calls the ‘right to rise.’ As educational opportunity becomes harder to attain, so does economic opportunity,” Bush said.

“The Horatio Alger story is becoming narrower and narrower in America when it should be expanding out and exploding into our lives.”

He briefly touched on some of the criticisms Republicans often make: make: “tax policy and over regulation and not pursuing an energy policy” but added, “It starts with access to quality education.”

Bush didn’t speak directly about presidential politics, but he took on the controversy over the Common Core State Standards, something that could make trouble for him if he decides to run.

He didn’t back off from his support for them.

Educators should be willing to experiment with ways to help the large numbers of students who perform at low levels and graduate from high school unprepared for college work, he said.

“That’s why the debate on the Common Core Standards has been troubling,” he said.

“In my view the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the minimum state standard,” he said. Those who want to replace them should “aim even higher.”

In China, he added, “nobody debates whether academic standards should be lower to protect students’ self-esteem.”

And there’s no question that higher standards are needed, he said, reeling off some statistics: only a quarter of high school graduates who took the ACT are prepared for college; more than half who attend community college need to take a remedial course; 600,000 skilled jobs in manufacturing can’t be filled for lack of workers; almost a third of high school graduates fail the military entrance exam.

The solutions, he said, in addition to higher standards, include choice among neighborhood public schools, charters, online schools or home schooling; extra pay to reward good teachers, especially those who work with students who have difficulties; and customized learning so that students move on after they master each lesson.

As governor, Bush started Florida’s A+ Plan for Education in 1999. It graded schools A to F, offered parents more choices of schools and rewarded successful teachers.

“I think we need an education reformer in the White House,” Maryam Al-Hammami, a conference participant who works for Microsoft in Virginia, said after the speech. “We’re not focused enough on the next generation. They’re not going to be able to lead our country the way education is going. I think he has the right approach to what we need to do.”

Chester Finn, former president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy research group, said Bush was “a fantastic leader and an inspirational speaker and a visionary education reformer. I like him enormously.

“I will also say that the president’s first duty is with respect to the world outside our borders,” he added. “And I just don’t know very much about him in relation to issues of foreign policy, defense policy, stuff like that. I don’t think he’s very visible yet on those topics.”