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Education dustups blot Jeb Bush's presidential prospects

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to the American Legislative Exchange Council on Friday in Chicago. Bush defended new achievement standards for students around the nation while calling for an expansion of school-choice initiatives in states.

Associated Press

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to the American Legislative Exchange Council on Friday in Chicago. Bush defended new achievement standards for students around the nation while calling for an expansion of school-choice initiatives in states.

TALLAHASSEE — Nobody felt the sting of Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's resignation quite like Jeb Bush.

The former Florida governor played a key role in recruiting Bennett from Indiana and was among his most ardent supporters — even after Bennett became entangled in an alleged grade-fixing flap.

When Bennett stepped down on Aug. 1, it was the latest in a string of setbacks for Bush, who has spent the past five years pushing an ambitious education reform agenda across the country. Earlier this summer, Bush's signature model of grading schools on an A-to-F scale came under attack in Florida. Then came a crushing wave of criticism from tea party groups, which oppose the new national standards Bush is promoting.

The political fallout could be significant. Many observers believe Bush is using his role as national education reformer to position himself for a run at the presidency in 2016. That hinges partly on success in Florida, where Bush created his template for school reform.

Bush, who has ducked questions about his presidential ambitions, did not return an email seeking comment.

When asked what Bennett's resignation would mean for Bush, Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said: "The question should be what will the resignation mean for students. Improving student achievement is at the heart of Gov. Bush's passion for reform and has been for the 20 years he has devoted to this cause."

The latest polls show Bush in the middle of the pack among potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates. He trails front-runner New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, according to an average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.

Bush's involvement in education policy dates to 1994, when he lost his first bid for governor and decided to launch an education think tank known as the Foundation for Florida's Future. Two years later, Bush and South Florida activist T. Willard Fair opened the state's first charter school in Miami's urban core.

As governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush introduced the A-to-F system of grading schools and oversaw the rapid expansion of school choice options, including magnet, virtual and charter schools. He set up a national education foundation after leaving office, and used it to spread similar policies to at least three dozen states.

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."

Bennett's resignation gave critics another reason to grumble.

Late last month, emails revealed that Bennett had tweaked the school grading model in Indiana last year to benefit a charter school run by an influential Republican Party donor. Bennett said he was trying to correct a flaw in the model that unfairly penalized high schools serving only ninth and 10th-grade students. But the emails led to a national media storm that cast doubt on the concept of grading schools, and prompted an investigation into the grading system in Indiana.

Bennett informed Bush of his resignation plans before he notified Gov. Rick Scott, emails obtained by the Times/Herald show. He also made it clear he was working to further Bush's legacy.

"I … believed that if I could help Florida recapture the lightning in a bottle that you guys caught while re-establishing your model, it would further validate you guys and your work as a model for America," he wrote in an email to Bush and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Bush stood by Bennett after the resignation, writing in an op-ed in the Miami Herald that "those who stooped to nasty political tactics to undermine Tony should be ashamed."

But Diane Ravitch, a national critic of school grades, called the scandal a "huge embarrassment" for Bush.

"There is no individual more associated with the Bush education idea than Bennett other than Jeb himself," she said.

Adding to Bush's woes: the unexpected political dustup over the Common Core standards.

Bush has said adopting a set of national curriculum standards will raise expectations for students in all states, and is championing the idea. But tea party groups and some prominent Republican lawmakers, including Rubio, have taken the position that curriculum standards ought to be developed on the state and local level.

"There are critics of Common Core Standards from both ends of the ideological spectrum," Bush said Friday at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council. "I know there are some in this room. I respect those who don't share my views. What I can't accept are the dumbed-down standards and expectations that exist in almost all of our schools today."

With sharp criticism from the left and right, some observers say Bush is up against the perfect storm. "He's at a point where all of the policies are starting to unravel and the timing could not be worse for him," said state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

But supporters like state Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican, believe Bush can weather the controversy. "Florida has dramatically improved because of the initiatives he started," said Legg, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "You can't take that away from him."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

Education dustups blot Jeb Bush's presidential prospects 08/11/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 11, 2013 11:28pm]
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