By Lesley Clark
WASHINGTON - Jeb Bush left the governor's office in 2007, but his influence still holds sway in Tallahassee, and now in state capitols from New Jersey to Oregon, where lawmakers are eager to adopt his education reform efforts.
Since leaving Tallahassee, the popular former Florida governor has developed a national reputation as an education reform powerhouse and champion of vouchers and charter schools. His latest recognition: the Bradley Foundation, a conservative group that says it shies away from lauding politicians. Last week, it gave the Republican its Bradley Prize, a distinction that carries a $250,000 stipend.
"The reforms that he put in place during his two terms as Florida governor in many ways lead the country in elementary and secondary education," said Michael W. Grebe, president and chief executive officer of the Bradley Foundation, which has spent more than $40 million over the past 20 years in support of charter schools and voucher programs - including as a donor to Bush's education foundation. "He put in place programs that have clearly raised academic standards. It's measurable, demonstrable. We're also really impressed by what he continues to do as a private citizen. When he left office, he didn't leave behind his work."
With the help of Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, governors and lawmakers in at least 17 states - mostly, though not all, Republican - have explored legislation based on the "Florida model." That includes grading schools on an A-to-F scale based on standardized test scores, making reading a requirement of advancing to the fourth grade and giving parents and students private-school vouchers and online courses.
"We've really moved the needle in Florida and that's been recognized," Bush said in an interview with the Miami Herald. "People are curious to know how we did it."
The foundation gets its funding from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. It has promoted Bush's efforts for years, but Bush acknowledged it has "expanded dramatically" with the election of a number of Republican governors and state lawmakers, interested in what he calls "provocative reform."
The reforms have crossed party lines: Bush is working with the former Democratic governor of West Virginia on digital learning; Democratic-led Washington is looking at a Bush recommendation - eliminating a "last in, first out" policy for teacher layoffs. And President Barack Obama last month toured a Miami high school with Bush, telling the former governor he was "grateful to him for the work that he's doing."
But the accolades are hardly universal. Florida Democrats dispute Bush's education philosophy, saying it emphasizes testing over learning and starves public schools of resources.
"I appreciate anyone who takes up the mantle of saying that education is important, but the 'Florida model' is more about rote memorization," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who pushed, unsuccessfully, this spring against more Bush-backed reforms in the Florida Legislature. "We're supposed to be turning out productive citizens, not just test-takers."
Critics also say that the gains seen in elementary school are not replicated at the high school level. Bush suggests his critics are moving the goal posts, first predicting "the world was going to come to an end" and "when that didn't happen," now questioning high school performance. "It's a long process," he said. "And along the way you learn and you try to advocate for reforms that will continue the progress."
As Republicans pine for Bush to run for president, Democrats call it "instructive" that Bush, after losing his first race for governor in 1994, founded a foundation to influence public policy.
"That was a major part of his keeping his name out in front with the public," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman with the Florida Education Association, the teachers' union that spent millions in 2002 in an unsuccessful effort to prevent a second Bush term. "Who knows what keeping his name in front may lead to this time?"
Bush has not been absent from the political arena: He made an endorsement in the Jacksonville mayor's race and is backing Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina for mayor of Miami-Dade, the nation's eighth-largest county.
But he scoffs at suggestions that his work with the foundation is motivated by anything other than a desire to improve the U.S. education system.
"This is where my passions are," he said. "If I had political ambitions, aspirations, there'd be a lot easier ways to build my creds."
Bush says the calls to run for president are flattering, but he quipped to the Washington Post last week that "the Magic Eight Ball says, 'Outlook not so good.'"
Supporters note that Bush's star power makes him the "standard bearer" for education reform.
"If people are looking for technical advice on reform, there are plenty of other wonks, but if you're trying to convince the rank-and-file legislator who has never heard of charter schools or accountability, you want Jeb Bush," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank.
Bush has made the case in person, traveling within the past month to Oklahoma and Minnesota. He downplays his role, noting that the foundation also offers assistance to lawmakers interested in replicating Florida's efforts, including model legislation and research data.
"If I just parachute in and out you might generate some press, but it's a lot of work," he said. "It's not just to show up and say, 'Hey, do this'; it's to help people craft these bills in the right way and generate the support to get them passed."
Bush met with Utah lawmakers in August, and the state has since passed its own version of Florida's school grading policy. Sen. Wayne Niederhauser said lawmakers were impressed with Bush and the foundation, but that it was the Florida results that closed the deal.
"It wasn't just Jeb Bush and his great personality and his political clout," Niederhauser said. "There's some substance behind it."