ORLANDO — Jeb Bush is back.
This week, in the center of the state he governed for eight years, Bush ends his 18-month hiatus from Florida public life.
The chosen occasion: a high-profile education conference, organized by his foundations, that will showcase the controversial reforms of his tenure.
The timing: a political season in which Bush and his allies are expected to campaign, if only behind the scenes, for two school voucher proposals they helped usher onto Florida's November ballot.
There is much speculation about Bush's motives and political aspirations. Is this just Jeb being an education policy wonk, eager to gather dozens of experts who will discuss the dry details of standardized testing and teacher merit pay?
Is it his attempt, in the shadow of his popular successor Gov. Charlie Crist, to assure his legacy as Florida's "education governor?"
Or is the two-day conference — headlined by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former first lady Barbara Bush and similar to events he has attended outside Florida — another entry onto the political stage?
"No," Bush said last week in an e-mail. "I care deeply about improving the quality of education. We need all schools — here and in the 49 other states — to get better for our country's future. The only way to improve student performance is through continual and perpetual reform of education."
On the ballot
In reality, Bush returned to the forefront of the education debate earlier this year. He just did it from behind the scenes.
When the Tax and Budget Reform Commission met in the spring for their once-in-20-year discussions, his allies on the commission — including three former members of his administration — worked to restore Bush's experiment in private school vouchers. Bush was reported to have lobbied individual commissioners by phone after his former deputy chief of staff Patricia Levesque set the stage with Brian Yablonski and Greg Turbeville, fellow commissioners and former Bush policy staffers.
The result: Voters in November will decide on two proposed constitutional amendments aimed at removing all obstacles to expanding private school vouchers in Florida. Bush had seen the Florida Supreme Court strike down his first voucher program, Opportunity Scholarships.
Bush said he doesn't anticipate his two nonprofit education foundations — the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida's Future — will play any formal role in campaigning for the ballot measures.
"I don't know yet if or how I personally will be involved in any efforts to pass these amendments," he added. "I am certainly hopeful that the amendments to improve the quality of education in Florida will pass."
Just this past week, the Foundation for Florida's Future sent out a mass e-mail highlighting a column that tax commission Chairman Allan Bense, House speaker under Bush, wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in favor of the proposed amendments.
And throughout the spring legislative session, the foundation sent e-mails for or against various education proposals. Bush, more than a year out of office, was essentially taking a stand on issues like FCAT grades and school curriculum.
J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, the prominent Republican lobbyist who ran Bush's failed 1994 gubernatorial campaign, acknowledged Bush and his foundations could play an important role in securing voter approval for the voucher proposals.
"It keeps the ballot measures in the forefront," said Stipanovich. "And you know, those measures are controversial. They aren't sure to pass by any means."
Focus on education
The ballot measures are just one element of Bush's education agenda, which will be on full display in Orlando on Thursday and Friday.
It's an unprecedented gathering of national and international education experts and politicians — all wooed by the Bush foundations. Speakers include Bloomberg, the New York City mayor registered as an independent; and the New York City schools chancellor, a Democrat.
The agenda is packed, and dense, with panel discussions with titles like "21st Century Classrooms: Harnessing Cutting-Edge Technology to Raise Student Achievement." Other topics include measuring performance and teacher quality (which Bush aimed to do with the FCAT), and a panel, not surprisingly, entitled "The Case for Vouchers: Students learn. Taxpayers save. All schools improve."
Known as a policy wonk, Bush has always reveled in the complicated intricacies and details of education policy. He won national attention for his brand of education reform, which emphasizes standardized testing and school choice through charter schools and private school vouchers.
"I think it's Gov. Bush's way of ensuring we do everything we can to improve education," said Levesque, the former staffer who serves as executive director to the foundations. "This shouldn't be perceived as a political thing — it's something he just believes in."
Friends and longtime political allies agree.
"Does it help for him to remain active, should he ever re-enter public office? Yes," said Stipanovich. "But does he have that in mind? I don't think so. I don't think Jeb has an overwhelming thirst to be in office."
But David Colburn, head of the Reubin O'D. Askew Institute on Politics and Society at the University of Florida, isn't so sure Bush has written off public office just yet.
"Think about the constituency in the Republican Party that he represents," Colburn said. "He's been somewhat out of the limelight, but he's been consulting with the governors of South Carolina, Colorado and others. And within Republican circles, he still has a lot of influence, particularly among neo-conservatives."
Without the liability of his last name, Colburn said, Jeb Bush would be a viable vice presidential candidate for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
"Being vice president or president someday, one could argue it's in the blood of the Bushes."
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.