TALLAHASSEE —After a bruising defeat in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Jeb Bush approached a well-known civil rights leader in Miami with an ambitious plan.
He wanted to open an experimental "charter" school in Liberty City, one of the nation's poorest communities. And he wanted T. Willard Fair to help.
Fair, the president of the Miami Urban League, was skeptical. Some members of his inner circle suggested Bush was using him for political gain.
The two men met in Miami. Fair assumed it would be nothing more than a photo-op. But it ended up being a 90-minute discussion on the state of Florida's schools.
"Jeb was genuine," Fair recalled. "You can't fool me. I'm going to test you too many times."
Two years later, in the summer of 1996, a group of 60 students, donning crisp red uniforms, entered the new Liberty City Charter School. It was the state's first charter school and it paved the way for hundreds of others.
There's no doubt that the experience in building the charter school helped Bush politically, softening his image in advance of his successful 1998 gubernatorial race. But it also sparked a deep interest in education policy that would define his legacy, both as Florida's governor and later as a leader in the national education reform movement.
"It opened his eyes to aspects of urban issues that he hadn't thought about before," said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor and author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.
As Bush defines himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, the story of the Liberty City Charter School is certain to draw attention. It's a double-edge sword for Bush. Supporters can point to the school's academic success in boasting Bush's leadership in education. At the same time, opponents can point to the financial troubles that led to its closing in 2008 as evidence of Bush's failed education agenda.
Bush, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wasn't focused on education when he first ran for governor in 1994.
His crime-and-punishment platform had resonated with voters — so much so he led in the polls for much of the campaign. But the Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles had surged in the end, securing the seat for a second four-year term.
Only 64,000 votes separated the winner from the loser. It was Florida's closest gubernatorial race to date.
As the year came to a close, he and his former campaign manager Sally Bradshaw — then Sally Harrell — began drafting plans for a privately funded conservative research institute in Coral Gables. They called it the Foundation for Florida's Future.
Early on, the foundation devoted much of its resources to a new concept in education: charter schools. The privately managed, publicly funded schools had been sprouting up in other states, but were not allowed under Florida law. Supporters said the schools would promote innovative teaching and learning practices, and empower parents to play a larger role in their child's education.
"Nobody really knew about them," recalled Jon Hage, then a policy analyst for the Foundation for Florida's Future. "[Bush] said 'Jon, I want to know everything there is to know about charter schools.'"
Bush later took the idea to Fair.
He already had some details in mind. The curriculum would focus on reading and mathematics, but would also help children build character. The classes would be small, and parents would sign contracts promising to be involved.
"He said, 'I need a laboratory to demonstrate that parents do care and that black kids can learn, even though they may come from poverty,'" Fair said.
The political and racial undertones were hard to ignore. One of Bush's most memorable gaffes in the 1994 campaign had come during a debate when both he and Chiles were asked what they would do for black voters.
"We have elected people year after year that say, 'I'm going to do this for you,'" Bush replied. "Now it's time to strive for a society where there is equality of opportunity, not equality of results… So I'm going to answer your question by saying, 'Probably nothing.' I think what we ought to do is to have a society where you go out and pursue your dreams and you're not punished."
The words "probably nothing" echoed across the state.
Working with Fair gave Bush credibility in Miami's urban core. Still, carrying out their plan would not be easy.
It took two years to convince the Florida Legislature to allow charter schools.
There were obstacles. Some Democrats expressed concerns that the new schools would benefit only affluent, white students, and vowed to fight the proposed legislation.
The teachers union also had reservations.
"We didn't want to discourage people from having options, but we could see the writing on the wall," said Maureen Dinnen, then vice president of the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association. "We knew there would not be as much accountability, and [charter schools] would draw off money."
When Chiles signed the charter school legislation in May 1996, Bush and Fair raced to open their school in time for the new academic year. They secured an empty eight-room schoolhouse at Northwest 87th Street and Fifth Avenue — technically in Miami's El Portal neighborhood — and enlisted parents and community leaders to help paint and prepare the building.
There were other tasks to be completed: hiring teachers, recruiting students, building a curriculum and purchasing supplies.
"He was intent on getting that school opened," said Cory Tilley, a former Bush spokesman and executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future. "He saw an opportunity. There was a lot of momentum and he didn't want to let that momentum go."
The school opened its doors on Aug. 26, 1996 and immediately garnered statewide media attention.
Bush was a frequent visitor that year, both with and without reporters, principal and CEO Katrina Wilson-Davis recalled.
"Sometimes, I didn't know he was even there," she said.
When Bush became a gubernatorial candidate in 1997, it was a Liberty City Charter School parent who opened his campaign account in Tallahassee.
The school's founding became an oft-told story on the campaign trail. Bush mentioned it in stump speeches and at community meetings. He also began visiting other schools across the state.
That November, Bush won election by a comfortable margin. He fared better among black voters than in his previous race.
The new governor had to scale back his involvement with the Liberty City Charter School to avoid having a conflict of interest. But education policy turned into his top issue.
One of his first initiatives was a sweeping education proposal called the A-Plus Plan for Education. It called for students in grades 3 through 10 to take standardized tests, and for schools to receive letter grades based on the results. High-performing schools would receive cash incentives. Poor-performing schools would face consequences, and their students could receive vouchers to attend private schools.
Bush also continued to champion school choice. He promoted legislation to expand charter schools and voucher programs for students with special needs.
"He turned the whole education environment upside down." said former state Rep. Ralph Arza, a Miami Republican who worked with Bush on many of his education initiatives.
Bush's influence over education policy extended beyond his time in governor's mansion.
After leaving office in 2007, Bush continued to drive the state's education agenda through his Foundation for Florida's Future. He also created the Foundation for Excellence in Education to help other states adopt Florida-style education policies. The national foundation has done work in at least 45 states and holds an annual summit on education reform.
The Liberty City Charter School, however, had an uneven trajectory.
In its first year, the school was recognized for posting stronger reading, writing and math scores than other schools in Miami-Dade County with similar demographics. But it received a D when school grades were released for the first time in 1999.
"We were under a lot of pressure," Wilson-Davis said. "We didn't have a lot of money. We didn't have a lot of brain trust. Everything we were learning we were learning in real time."
School leaders pushed ahead, addressing students' individual deficiencies and engaging parents.
"It was a family," Fair said. "Our parents went on all of our field trips. Our parents were on cafeteria duty. Our parents were intimately involved in the process. That's the stuff that drives a school's success."
Test scores gradually improved. And in 2006, the Liberty City Charter School received an A from the state.
The celebration was short lived.
School leaders had lost a legal battle with the landlord over a damaged roof and owed $500,000 in legal fees. They plunged even deeper into debt by purchasing a new piece of property in Liberty City.
The school's finances led to its 2008 closure by the Miami-Dade School Board.
Bush had left office by then, and was out of touch with school officials.
"I am not aware of what this is about," he wrote in an email to the Miami Herald when asked about the school's closure in 2008. "I do know that the school was an A school, which warmed my heart."
Despite its closure, the Liberty City Charter School changed the state's education landscape.
Florida is now home to more than 615 charter schools, which collectively enroll 229,000 students, or nearly one-tenth of the overall student population, according to the state Department of Education.
The state's charter school movement has been heralded as a national model for increasing parental choice and improving access to education.
In a recent analysis, the pro-charter-school Center for Education Reform wrote that "through a series of education reforms that return power to parents, including charter schools, Florida's Hispanic students now outscore the assessment averages for all races in 28 states and black students outscore the average in eight states."
But Florida's charter school movement has also been the subject of sharp criticism from parent and teacher groups, who point out that more than 275 charter schools have closed in Florida due to financial or academic problems.
The business of charter schools has also been controversial.
A 2011 Miami Herald investigation found that charter schools in Florida had grown into a $400-million-a-year business rife with insider deals and conflicts of interest. The Herald also found that school districts could do little to demand compliance from charter schools caught violating the law.
"There are some very high-performing charter schools that do serve the needs of students," said Florida education historian Sherman Dorn. "The problem is that nobody makes arm's length transactions."
Bush's involvement with charter schools could help him in a Republican primary, said Michael Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
"He was more successful at expanding school choice than any other governor and he did it first," he said.
But Petrilli conceded that Florida's charter school industry could also be a liability for Bush in the general election. "It is known as a fairly low-quality sector," he said.
In his first major speech as a possible presidential candidate, Bush began to tell the story of the Liberty City Charter School.
"In my city, the schools were failing, opportunity was scarce and for too many, simply being born in the wrong neighborhood meant the American Dream was cruelly out of reach," he told the Detroit Economic Club last month. "I joined with my friend, T. Willard Fair, a courageous leader in the civil rights movement. We decided that the right to rise, was also a civil right. So we went to work to change education in Florida."
One week later, Fair introduced Bush at an education summit at Florida State University.
The renewed attention on the Liberty City Charter School has brought some renewed criticism.
Alicia Banuchi, who served as the administrative assistant to the principal from 1997 to 1999, wrote a letter to the Miami Herald saying Bush used the school and community to further his own ambitions.
"Immediately after he won the race for governor by winning the black vote, he abandoned the school and the poor children and families with whom he had developed a personal relationship," Banuchi wrote.
"They were not doing the right thing by the children," she later told a reporter.
But principal Wilson-Davis said she never doubted Bush's commitment to the school and the community. It was the little things, like the way he picked trash off the floors.
"You can't fake that," she said.
As Bush prepares for a possible new beginning, so too may Liberty City.
In October, the Miami-Dade School Board approved an application for a new charter school in Liberty City to be called the We Rise Academy.
Leading the effort: T. Willard Fair.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @kmcgrory.