TAMPA — Former Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday used his first high-profile speaking slot at a Republican National Convention as a platform to discuss his favorite subject, calling the need for better schools "the great moral and economic issue of our time."
Bush also bashed a favorite target, calling "politically powerful" teacher unions a roadblock to education reforms.
Delivering his first prime-time address to a political convention, Bush concentrated on the issue that marked his two terms as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and remains his top priority as head of a nonprofit foundation.
"The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn't exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all," Bush said. "We must stop prejudging children based on their race, ethnicity or household income. We must stop excusing failure in our schools and start rewarding improvement and success."
During his years as governor, Bush pushed school choice, including taxpayer-financed vouchers that allowed some students to switch from low-performing public schools to private or religious schools. The program was struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.
He also emphasized a statewide standardized test, the FCAT, as a basic testing tool in the classroom. But the FCAT is hobbled by grading glitches and growing unpopularity, and Gov. Rick Scott says the test's role should be re-evaluated because students may be subject to too much testing.
Democrats remain critical of Bush for emphasizing standardized testing as the benchmark of student performance.
"The FCAT is remarkably unpopular," said Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from Broward County. "Jeb Bush's brand of education says the only way to measure the accomplishments of a child academically is by the results of one test on one day."
The speech was vintage Bush: He would rather talk about policy than politics.
The bilingual Bush began his speech with a welcoming "Bienvenidos," but made no mention of immigration, an issue he feels the Republican Party has handled badly, alienating many Hispanic voters. In a speech this week, Bush said the GOP needs to stop "acting stupid" and must soften its hard-line tone on immigration toward Hispanics.
Only once in his 15-minute appearance did Bush speak directly about President Barack Obama.
"Mr. President, it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies," Bush said. "You were dealt a tough hand, but your policies have not worked. In the fourth year of your presidency, a real leader would accept responsibility for his actions and you haven't done it."
The line was not included in his prepared remarks.
Bush shared his 15-minute appearance with a teacher and former student who share his views on education. Frantz Placide, a recent graduate of Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., said Bush's school choice program allowed him to switch from an "unproductive and failing" public school in Miami to a private Catholic school.