As the nation starts paying closer attention to how Jeb Bush talks about education policy—already an Achilles heel for his potential presidential campaign—the former Florida governor is reaching into an old bag of tricks: attacking teachers' unions, preaching tough love for "little Johnny" who can't read by the third grade, and insisting that the federal government should have a limited role in setting education policy.
While Bush faces a backlash from conservative activists wary of his support for Common Core education standards, he was among friends Tuesday at an education summit his foundation hosted in Tallahassee, the state capital where Bush served as governor from 1999 to 2007 and commerce secretary for two years in the 1980s. It was clearly a home-field advantage: He was introduced by T. Willard Fair, his co-founder of a charter school, and took questions from Patricia Levesque, his former deputy chief of staff, who essentially threw batting practice to Bush, a wonk who grasps education policy like major leaguers understand fastballs over the middle of the plate.
Still, Bush wasn't going to get caught looking. Asked why he's remained involved in K-12 policy since he's left office, Bush framed the issue as a fight between teachers unions that want to protect their financial interest in "the establishment," versus the necessity of preparing children for jobs in a global economy. He described his position in language that may endear himself to conservative voters who cite "political correctness" among the chief problems facing the nation.
"God forbid if little Johnny is all stressed out and we pass him on—not in Florida, but in other places—if they haven't learned to read in third grade," Bush said on Tuesday. "How horrible it is for their self-esteem that they're held back to actually learn how to read? My gosh, that's the policy—this worrying about self-esteem at the expense of whether a kid can read? And that's a problem that doesn't just relate to poverty. We need to lift expectations up for every kid for them to be able to achieve earned success in our society."
But while he was celebrated by conservatives on education a decade ago when he was governor, Bush now faces skepticism from Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere over his support for the Common Core State Standards. Conservative Republicans, the Tea Party and Glenn Beck view the standards as a federal mandate, mocking it as ObamaCore, because of the president's support for the curriculum. The standards—which have been adopted by 43 states—technically aren't a national policy, though the federal Race to the Top initiative did provide encouragement and funding to states that adopted them.
Bush has tried to navigate the conservative firestorm over Common Core, which has turned into a political litmus test for his party, by saying his support is for high academic standards. States are free to improve the measurements, Bush has said.
On Tuesday, he didn't mention Common Core by name. When Levesque asked about the proper role for the federal government in K-12 policy, Bush said the "simple role" for the feds was "to require an annual test. Just for starters, I think that should be the only role that they should have."
"Having that baseline accountability matters," Bush said. "But beyond that, I think it has to be pretty clear that the federal government's role ought to be to enhance reform at the local and state level, not to impose it. Because that doesn't work."
Bush also said the federal government should provide financial incentives for states, and there should be limits on its role.
"They shouldn't authorize, they shouldn't coerce people into taking a certain type of test," Bush said. "They shouldn't mandate or require a certain type of content or curriculum or standards. There should be none of that."
Bush, who turns 62 on Wednesday, was at ease sitting on a stage at the Alumni Center at Florida State University. At one point he referenced education data from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, joking that he wouldn't dare challenge the numbers from a group named for his mother, the former first lady. "You can PolitiFact her," Bush said, referring to the fact-checking group run by the Tampa Bay Times. "See how that works for you."
He also remarked how much fun he was having hammering away at the teachers unions, the same ones he battled during his eight years in office as he pushed to create statewide voucher programs, expand charter schools and dismantle class-size requirements.
At one point, he drew laughs by impersonating the sound of Twitter responses to his takedown of "government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies." "That'll light up the Twitter," Bush said. "The Twitter universe, there's some heads exploding right now. I can feel it."