July 15 (Bloomberg) -- One of Jeb Bush’s biggest accomplishments is his work to improve Florida’s public schools -- and that record may come under fiercest attack from his own party if he enters the Republican 2016 presidential primary.
The former governor is touting gains under his “A-plus” plan, which imposed statewide testing standards, provided financial rewards to improving schools and offered students a way out of those that were failing them. The state’s high-school graduation rate has increased to 75.6 percent, compared with 52.5 percent when Bush, 61, took office in 1999.
Yet his support for a similar set of national education standards, the “Common Core” initiative created in 2009 by the bipartian National Governors Association and backed by the White House, places him at odds with forces within his party who say it’s government overreach.
“There’s a lot of anger and concern about him running, because of his stance on education,” said Karen Effrem, co-founder of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, which is made up of several local Tea Party groups. “All he’s doing in expanding federal control and destroying the autonomy of parents and local school districts.”
Opposition from Tea Party activists, who seek to limit the reach of the federal government, has intensified as President Barack Obama’s administration linked federal grant money to states that adopt the recommended national standards.
Common Core “has become a divisive issue in our nation with the concern that the federal government is trying to mandate down to states standards,” Republican Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said in a July 11 meeting with reporters. Fallin and the Oklahoma legislature are being sued by parents and educators for repealing Common Core standards.
The issue also is dividing the prospective Republican presidential primary field. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a one-time supporter of Common Core, last month ordered his state to pull out of the initiative, citing a “federal overreach.” Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas have also criticized the standards.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yesterday created a study commission to make recommendations on Common Core and related tests by 2015. Christie said July 12 that “people are very distrustful of what government’s doing” in Washington. “They become increasingly more trustful the closer the government gets to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bush’s nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education in Tallahassee has stepped up its support of Common Core. Foundation director Patricia Levesque has written opinion articles defending the initiative, using student gains in Florida as evidence the educational model works.
While the economy and jobs rank as the top issues for voters, public education is key for Republican candidates looking to broaden their appeal, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy group.
Almost 60 percent of likely U.S. voters considered education a “very important” factor in how they would vote in November’s midterm elections, according to a nationwide poll conducted last month by Rasmussen Reports.
“Education is one of those issues that Republicans can use in the general election to show middle-class voters that they’re thinking about them,” Hess said. The intra-party fight over Common Core “has upended all of that.”
Bush is trying to recast Common Core as an extension of his successful Florida policies, which have been copied by Republican legislatures and leaders in at least 10 states.
As governor, he passed a law that graded public schools on an A-to-F scale, imposed more vigorous testing and provided tuition vouchers for students in failing public schools.
Since the program was put into place, Florida’s graduation rate and scores on national reading tests increased faster than the national average. The state ranked fourth among states in improving fourth-grade reading scores between 2003 and 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Scores for Hispanic and black students outpaced those of whites, making Florida one of few states to narrow the achievement gap between races.
“Results unequivocally show that Florida’s bold reforms have dramatically improved student learning,” Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for Bush’s foundation, said in an e-mail. Bush started the foundation after leaving office in 2007.
In a June 26 video released by the foundation, Bush said his 1999 action helped turn the state’s education system from “lousy” to a national leader in student performance. Without mentioning Common Core, Bush said Florida’s model shows what can be achieved by raising expectations for public school students.
“All of this validates the need for comprehensive, harder-edged reform,” he said.
Florida’s teachers union disagrees that outcomes have improved because of Bush’s mix of high-stakes testing and more charter schools.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find many teachers who believe that public schools in Florida are better than they were 15 years ago,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.
Bush also faces an uphill battle in trying to convert those statistics into a winning message to Common Core skeptics in the Tea Party movement, said Aubrey Jewett, who teaches political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
“Theoretically, it should help him because at least some of the data does support what he’s saying,” he said. “But there are some folks in the Republican Party who do not want to do anything on Common Core -- other than get rid of it.”
Indeed, protesters from the Cincinnati Tea Party and other local groups greeted Bush with chants of “No Common Core!” as he entered an Ohio fundraiser last month. They waved signs and posted messages on Twitter, using the hashtag #StopJebNow.
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