Jeb Bush's bond with Barack Obama on education poses 2016 challenge for him

President Barack Obama greets former Gov. Jeb Bush before speaking at Miami Central Senior High School on March 4, 2011. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at center.
President Barack Obama greets former Gov. Jeb Bush before speaking at Miami Central Senior High School on March 4, 2011. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at center.
Published Jan. 31, 2015

Standing before a massive American flag, Jeb Bush began a withering attack on President Barack Obama.

"On energy, he waffles. On immigration, he hasn't led. On foreign policy, he doesn't lead, even from behind. On the family, he is captive to the special interest of the left."

On the economy, "he is an utter and complete failure."

The speech came at a June 2013 dinner for the Conservative Party of New York State, foreshadowing Bush's entry in the 2016 presidential race. But the indictment conspicuously avoided the subject the former Florida governor knows best: education.

Bush and Obama have been unlikely partners on education, sharing similar goals, praising each other publicly and appearing together at a high school in Miami as Obama was gearing up for re-election.

Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, has often cited Bush and twice spoken at Bush's annual education summit. They have met privately about five times since 2010, according to the Department of Education.

Bush's problem over the Common Core education standards is well known, but the backstory is his symbiotic relationship with the Obama administration and the political crumbling of a reform movement that Bush once led but is now a liability as he faces the GOP nominating gantlet.

The shift could do for Bush what health care did for Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts oversaw reforms that served as a basis for Obamacare.

With Republicans hostile toward Obama on all fronts and conservatives seething over what they view as the federal takeover in Common Core, Bush's signature issue may be diminished.

"He's long had a proud tradition of being a gutsy school reformer, but because of these larger changes pushed by the Obama administration, things he has fought for play differently," said Rick Hess, who specializes in education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"Jeb Bush wants to talk about the particulars of education, and conservatives want to talk about constitutional authority and that could be a point of tension."

• • •

Bush had reason to reach out to the newly elected Obama.

He had recently set up his Foundation for Excellence in Education, and he called up Duncan, who had been the public schools chief in Chicago and was not afraid to challenge the teachers union.

At the time there was talk of overhauling No Child Left Behind, the education policy enacted by President George W. Bush, and the former Florida governor wanted to ensure that some of the flaws were exposed — changes he had called for years earlier.

Patricia Levesque, who oversaw day-to-day operations of Bush's foundation, went to Washington and met with Duncan to make the case for allowing states flexibility to innovate, as Florida had.

Obama was already receptive to some of the ideas Bush and other Republicans were pushing. During the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama talked of more teacher accountability and other reforms and, once elected, he had Duncan pursuing them along with an expansion of charter schools.

"I'm excited … because I think for the first time in my political life, there seems to be more consensus than disagreement across the ideological spectrum about education reform," Bush said during a 2009 speech at an education forum in Nashville. "I'm very encouraged about Secretary Duncan's advocacy of challenging the status quo, and I'm excited that Republicans seem to be not wanting to get into a food fight about this but to join forces and to find common ground. . . . This is a huge opportunity."

By 2010, the Common Core education standards had emerged, developed by stakeholders at the state level. Today, the notion that the federal government was involved stems in part from Obama's "Race to the Top" grants that encouraged states to lift education standards and innovate. Common Core wasn't a focal point but adopters got a small boost in their overall score.

Bush supported competitive grants, though, his staff stressed, he opposed the overall stimulus from which the money came. States were not compelled to seek the billions in funding but many did, including Florida.

In December 2010, Duncan gave the keynote speech at Bush's annual education summit. Bush again praised Duncan in a news release announcing the gathering, and Obama's secretary sounded a measured note: "We recognize that the federal role is to support state and local efforts to improve education rather than dictate solutions from Washington."

As the Bush-Obama alliance strengthened, murmurs of a federal takeover of Common Core were growing among conservative activists in good part because of Race to the Top.

Still, Bush stuck by Obama. In early 2011, the White House reached out to him to say the president was headed to Miami to do something on education and Bush suggested Miami Central Senior High School, a long dismal performer that underwent a transformation.

"Secretary Duncan, thank you for your commitment and service to our country," Bush said on March 4 from a stage in a gym full of ecstatic students. "Without further ado, I give you the president of the United States, Barack Obama."

Obama clasped Bush's arms then honored him as a "champion of education reform" — not quite the hug then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist shared with the president in 2009, but an image that will surely be fashioned into a campaign attack ad.

Having Bush on stage was beneficial to Obama, who was preparing for what seemed like a brutal re-election in the face of a struggling economy and growing unrest overseas. It demonstrated Obama, whose support for charter schools and standardized testing infuriated teachers unions, was willing to move to the center.

For Bush, it validated his leadership on education and was an optimistic sign that the issue would bridge the deepening rift between Republicans and Democrats — in essence avoiding the food fight Bush bemoaned during his 2009 speech in Nashville.

Democrats were uneasy, if aghast, with the Obama-Bush alliance. After the high school event the president went to a fundraiser at the Fontaine­bleau hotel and the mere mention of Bush's name brought boos. "Even though Gov. Bush and I disagree on a range of issues," Obama said, "we agree on the importance of education to America."

• • •

That scene in Miami seems like ages ago. Today, the boos toward Bush come from conservatives.

The backlash over Common Core has exploded from the margins to a potent issue in the pending presidential race. Governors and other Republicans who supported the standards have run away, leaving Bush isolated.

As states began to retreat, Duncan tried to counter by using Bush's name (and other GOP backers) in news releases. "The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy," Duncan said in 2012 as South Carolina moved to block implementation of the standards.

More recently Bush and Duncan have seemed to parrot each other, giving some breathing room to the anti-Common Core crowd while insisting higher standards — no matter what they are called — are vital.

"While they disagree on many issues, Gov. Bush has great respect for Secretary Duncan and his work in education," spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said.

Bush has criticized the administration for refusing to accept school choice, and he and Duncan debated that point during the 2010 education summit. Bush has also criticized Duncan for using waivers for No Child Left Behind to pressure states to adopt Common Core or other standards, saying it should be done legislatively. And he has blamed Obama for trying to take credit for Common Core adoption.

Those points, however, are largely overshadowed in the public record and many think Bush could have been a louder voice against Obama's encroachment.

"He should have been the right's ambassador to Common Core rather than the other way around," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that supports Common Core. "I should have been stronger," he added. "Jeb wasn't the only one."

Petrilli sees a deeper question regarding Bush, who in eight years as governor used his executive power to maximum effect, getting his way with — and sometimes ignoring — the Legislature.

"What's fair is to ask: 'What does this mean about his vision for the federal role in education?' His brother said, 'I'm going to bring my Texas reforms to Washington.' Will Jeb try to bring his Florida reforms?"

Replied Campbell: "Gov. Bush believes education should be a national priority, but not turned into a federal program. He believes the best ideas on education come from states and local communities. Governor Bush believes they should stop tying every education dollar to a rule written in Washington, D.C."

As he moves swiftly into the 2016 contest, the issue tests Bush's commitment to run a campaign that rises above the partisan swamp — to lose the primary in order to win the general election, as he has said. Bush has long argued that education should not be only a Democratic or Republican concern.

"This speaks well of Arne and Jeb. Unfortunately our politics is increasingly dominated by people who see working with the other side as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of that's how you get things done," said Andy Rotherham, a Democrat and co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that supports educational innovation.

Unfortunately for Bush, Rotherham added, "People who say, 'It looks like he's kind of a grownup,' they're not the people who are motivated to vote in the early primaries or stand in a caucus for hours on end."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.