WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will share a political stage at a Miami high school Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, giving the president's education initiative a bipartisan boost.
The Republican governor, who last summer criticized Obama as "childish" for continuing to blame the sluggish economy on former President George W. Bush, will join the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Miami Central Senior High School, where Obama is to deliver remarks on his push for improving U.S. schools.
Despite his spirited defense of his brother, Bush has lauded some of Obama's education efforts and has said he believes education is one area where the political parties can find common ground.
The school field trip with the popular former Republican governor gives Obama an opportunity to burnish his bipartisan credentials — something his political team has emphasized after Democrats' huge losses in November. Bush also gives Obama a Republican alternative to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has rejected the administration's offer of $2.4 billion in high-speed rail dollars and is suing to overturn its health care overhaul.
Unlike with former Gov. Charlie Crist — whose hug with Obama helped to seal his departure from the Republican Party — there's little downside for Bush, the self-styled "education governor," who since leaving office in 2007 has sought to establish a reputation as an education expert, say political observers.
"An unserious politician sees a presidential visit as a photo op," said Alberto Martinez, a Republican strategist in Tallahassee. "A serious leader like Gov. Bush sees it as an opportunity to bring attention to serious and weighty policy matters."
It also may send a clear message that Bush isn't running for president in 2012, despite GOP entreaties. Bush did not respond Tuesday to an e-mail about the political calculations, but has said repeatedly he won't run in 2012.
The day won't be entirely bipartisan. Obama has two fundraisers for Democrats planned after his speech — one for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and top GOP target Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, and a second for Broward Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a rising Democratic star who is helping her party's efforts to retake the House in 2012.
The fundraiser for Nelson will be at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, while the Wasserman Schultz event is at the Miami Beach home of Democratic fundraiser Michael Adler.
Bush said in a statement through a spokeswoman that he was "honored to welcome" Obama and Duncan to Florida, calling the state a "national model for education reform."
"Because of high expectations for students, hard-edge policies that focus schools on learning and an array of choices for families, the Sunshine State is leading the nation in rising student achievement," Bush said. "I look forward to sharing Florida's model for student success with President Obama and Secretary Duncan."
Duncan said the White House had proposed the visit to Bush, who recommended Miami Central.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Bush had boasted about Central "because it tells an incredible story of the impact successful turnaround strategies and models can have on persistently low-performing schools."
Carney praised Bush, saying he "was committed and remains committed to bipartisan education reform. The president is as well."
As governor, Bush imposed an overhaul that included the nation's first statewide private school voucher program for students in failing schools and testing to grade school performance.
The White House noted the school the pair will appear at has been awarded federal grant money aimed at improving "persistently low-achieving schools." Among the steps the school took: electing to replace the principal and rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff.
"Obviously, this is a high priority for the president, and he believes very strongly that education reform is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue," Carney said. "And I think his pursuit of reform has demonstrated that. His reforms already have generated a great deal of bipartisan support, and I think that's reflective of the fact that Americans believe it ought to be a priority."
It's not the first time Bush and Obama have found common ground on education: Bush's educational foundation — which has clashed with Democrats over grading schools and private school vouchers — had kind words for an Obama education speech in 2009, saying the president made "important remarks regarding the state of education in America and the critical need to reform our system."
And Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education in December invited Duncan as a keynote speaker to a luncheon. Bush at the time noted that Duncan was "advancing education reform across the nation."
"Working together, I am confident we can improve the quality of education to better prepare students for success in college and careers in the 21st century," Bush said.
The two shared a stage after the luncheon and answered audience questions.
"The common ground comes by having a conversation," Bush said, crediting Obama with beginning to "make education a national priority. … I give president Obama credit for that."
Duncan led the crowd in a round of applause for Bush: "These conversations are so important and your moral leadership is important," he said to Bush.