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Education Special Report

Jeb Bush and Florida's Education Success

Jeb Bush and Florida's Education Success

By Carl M. Cannon - September 21, 2011


Rick Perry’s emergence as a prominent Republican presidential contender has confounded some conservative intellectuals, especially those who care about education reform, and not because of Perry’s mediocre grades while attending Texas A&M -- or because of his education policies as governor in Austin.

When the 2012 presidential campaign season began, some GOP insiders thought their best candidate, all things being equal, might be the former governor of another Southern state. Jeb Bush was an unalloyed conservative and proven vote-getter who’d presided over a strong economy in a big state while posting a record of legislative achievement so impressive that his nickname was “King Jeb.”

His name was the two-term Florida governor’s problem when it came to any possible aspirations of national office: Not the Jeb part, or even the showy modifier, but rather the surname. It was universally believed, apparently by Jeb Bush himself, that four years wasn’t enough time to counteract the “Bush fatigue” attendant to his oldest brother’s last year in the White House.

Unexpectedly, however, a governor who walks and talks a lot more like George W. Bush than his own brother and who served under Bush in Austin has emerged as the 2012 presidential front-runner.

It’s probably too late for Jeb Bush to reconsider his 2012 options, but it’s certainly not too late to give his record in Tallahassee a second look. And in no area did Bush have more of an impact than in education policy.

“Governor Bush has been at the forefront of education reform,” said Michael W. Grebe, president of the Bradley Foundation, which has donated generously to education reform projects, while honoring Jeb Bush earlier this year. “During his administration and since, Florida students have made incredible gains.”

Today, improving America’s public schools is a cause ostensibly embraced by both political parties. Twelve years ago, however, when Jeb Bush became governor of the Sunshine State, it was a partisan minefield -- and there was little reason to believe that government could turn things around quickly or decisively. That’s what seems to have happened in Florida, however, with ripple effects that have spilled out across the country.

Jeb Bush never criticizes George W. Bush publicly -- or, as far as anyone knows, privately -- on education reform or anything else. But it is a matter of public record that Jeb Bush was vowing to create a public school system in Florida “to ensure that no child is left behind” before that became the inspiration for federal legislation. In addition, Jeb Bush has long been on record as believing that the most effective place for school reform is the states, not the federal government.

“By federalizing education policy you create resistance at the classroom, school, school district -- and even the state level,” he told the Harvard Political Review earlier this year. “I think you’re getting more dynamic results by having the states play the policy role and holding local school districts accountable for actual learning.”

This is what happened in Florida, with eye-opening results. It didn’t happen in a day, it didn’t even happen in a decade, and the difficulty in sustaining the gains made in lower grades through high school in Florida shows that no one in Tallahassee should be resting on their laurels. But the educational successes there were tangible, and measurable, and they have been copied by several other states.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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