The former governor was passionate and persuasive as he opened his fifth annual education conference in Washington, D.C. He made a strong case for holding all students to the same academic standards as a way to bridge the nation’s growing income inequality gaps, seamlessly blending the concerns of liberals and conservatives, suburban moms and corporate executives. Among the hundreds of policy wonks in the audience were powerful political consultants and fundraisers chomping at the bit should he run for public office again.
Somebody should tell Jeb Bush to run for president, right?
It’s probably happening at this very moment. It took only 16 days after the November election for The New York Times to put a story about his presidential prospects on the front page (with a rather self-defensive headline: “Jeb Bush in 2016? Not Too Early for Chatter”). But the 59-year-old Bush wasn’t giving interviews Tuesday, especially, a spokeswoman said, after a reporter ambushed him at a cocktail gathering with former staffers the night before.
People who attended downplayed the get-together as an informal meeting of the “Jeb Bush Alumni Association,” one of many that have been held in Miami and Washington, D.C. since Bush left office in 2006. Still, as one of the leading political figures in the country and the professor emeritus of the GOP in the nation’s biggest battleground state, Bush can expect exacting scrutiny until he unequivocally rules out a presidential bid. Which, his allies note, he is not doing at the moment. And he may not announce any decision until after a potential statewide campaign in Texas by his son, George P. Bush, in 2014.
“I don’t think there’s anyone more qualified in the country to be president,” said Steve Uhlfelder, who served on the Florida Board of Governors overseeing public universities during Bush’s administration and attended the conference Tuesday.
Bush showed off both his political skills and mastery of policy in his speech opening the two-day summit attended by about 900 people. He was affable and self-deprecating when he introduced Govs. Bev Perdue of North Carolina and Paul LePage of Maine, adding with a shoulder shrug, "Governors are really important, I think...I used to be one.” But he was dead serious when he talked about the stark achievement gaps between rich and poor students. “Where is the outrage?” he demanded. “Shameful,” was the way he described “social promotion,” the practice of allowing failing students to advance to the next grade.
To Bush, the solution is clear. He believes in school accountability as fervently as Grover Norquist believes in lower taxes. Bush’s interest in education policy has long been interwoven with his political career, ever since a bitter loss in his first governor’s race in 1994 led him to establish an inner-city charter school.
One of his signature achievements in Florida was the “A-plus” education plan, which established a school grading system based on student test scores. Students enrolled in failing schools would have been eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to private schools, a part of the plan that was ruled unconstitutional. The plan set off epic battles between Bush, Democrats, and the teachers union, who argued Bush was encouraging “teaching to the test” and punishing poor schools.
Those issues, comparisons to the “No Child Left Behind” law, and the mixed legacies left by his brother and father, will be heavily re-litigated should the former Florida governor decide to run for president. But in the wake of Republican Mitt Romney’s dismal showing among Hispanic voters, Bush’s strong ties to that community, and more broadly, his appeal among both moderate, establishment Republicans and movement conservatives, make him a top contender.