Jeb Bush on Thursday called the debate over education standards “a really, really good fight” for Republicans to have—and then threw a few punches at his political opponents.
Speaking in Washington at the annual conference of the Foundation for Excellence in Education Reform, a group he founded in 2008, Bush aggressively defended the Common Core State Standards that have become an ideological flash point within the GOP.
“There is no question we need higher academic standards,” said Bush, the former Florida governor. “And at the local level … the rigor of the Common Core state standards must be the new minimum in classrooms.”
Bush acknowledged, to some audience laughter, that he “might be in the minority” with his views on education.
Common Core is a set of national standards—which Bush was consulted on and has supported since its inception—that determine what level of proficiency students must attain each year in key subjects. It has stirred a firestorm of opposition from conservative activists who view the program as an intrusion of big government into local classrooms.
Bush called the debate over Common Core “troubling,” but he was careful not to demonize opponents. “I respect those who weigh in on all sides of this issue.” Bush said. “Nobody in this debate has a bad motive…. Even if we don’t all agree on Common Core, there are many principles we can agree on.”
Still, he issued a warning to governors—including some potential rivals for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination—who have spoken out against the Common Core standards.
“For those states that are choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine. Except you should be aiming even higher and being bolder and raising standards to ask more from our students.”
Bush offered his remarks inside a D.C. hotel ballroom, as a polite group of supporters ate quietly from a breakfast buffet at white-cloth-clad tables. His 20-minute speech was not slowed by any interruption of applause from the audience.
Beyond speaking directly to Common Core, Bush also delivered a stinging appraisal of the public-education system. He said organized labor and other entrenched political interests have stifled innovation and experimentation that is needed to transform America’s struggling schools.
“It starts with a basic question: If we were designing our school systems from scratch, what would they look like? I know one thing. We wouldn’t start with more than 13,000 government-run, unionized, politicized, monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators, and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”
“It would be insane” to re-create such a system, he argued.
Bush also took the opportunity to tout Florida’s improved education system, crediting a series of reforms he implemented nearly a decade ago. Today, he said, Florida is “a national leader” in school performance and in leveling the playing field between high- and low-income students.
The former governor, who is weighing a presidential run in 2016, seemed at times to be rehearsing an aspirational, education-themed stump speech. He said quality education is “the great equalizer” for low-income children and called the limited access to such opportunities “a civil-rights crisis.”
In keeping with that theme, Bush was introduced by Denisha Merriweather, an African-American woman from Jacksonville who became the first in her family to graduate from college.
“There are literally millions of Denishas waiting out there to be helped. Waiting for us. Waiting for us to push through policies to give them a choice,” Bush said. “That’s what they want—a choice and a chance. They’ll take care of the rest.”
This story was updated to clarify Bush’s role in the creation of Common Core.