The divide between the impoverished and privileged in the United States is widening, with a society of once great ideals following a disturbing path toward an unsustainable future — a nation in need of “restoration.”
A new regime of educational accountability is the solution to changing the nation’s course — with stringent standards and testing for schoolchildren, appropriate pay for the most talented teachers, a choice of schools for children attending inadequate classes and an embracement of technology.
This was the message that Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, delivered this morning in his keynote address to nearly 1,000 people assembled for a two-day national summit of his Foundation for Excellence in Education in Washington.
There is an unmistakable political message in this as well.
Bush, whose two terms as governor in Florida from 1999 to 2007 were distinguished by his commitment to an “A-Plus” plan for education that rewarded higher-performing public schools, is widely viewed as one of the Republican Party’s top prospects for a presidential campaign in 2016. And, while he has remained mum about any plans for that following the loss of Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6, Bush did meet with some of his longtime political and policy advisers in Washington on the eve of this annual conference — including Neil Newhouse, a Washington-area pollster who campaigned for Romney this year and has served Bush in the past.
(Newhouse polled for Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and his partner at Public Opinion Strategies, Bill McInturff, polled for Bush’s first bid in 1994. The gathering of Newhouse and other past advisers here is a regular event for Bush when he’s in town, Bush associates say — calling any reading of the meeting of the “alums” as a political sign ridiculous. Newhouse called it an informal gathering of about two dozen mostly policy-oriented people over drinks, with no speeches by Bush or anyone else in that open-doored room.)
Still, Bush is embellishing a message on which his older brother, former President George W. Bush, campaigned for president in 2000: The Texas governor proposed a national regime of school accountability, contending that the nation must combat “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He pursued that during his first year, winning passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, a law signed as the nation’s attention was suddenly turned to terrorism by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The law was enacted by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, though it since has become a target of ridicule for “teaching to the test,” with states complaining that the federal government never supplied the financing necessary to help them meet the national standards.
It’s a durable message for a post-Iraq, and ultimately post-Afghanistan campaign — with the 2016 presidential campaign offering potential anew for a contest centered on domestic issues. Bush, who today called himself “a Texan by birth and a Floridian by choice,” has been pursuing education reform since 1994, when he lost his first election as governor and started a charter school in Miami with the leader of the Urban League there.
“He was a principled governor, principled politician,” said Phil Handy, an Orlando business consultant who chaired Bush’s campaigns. Handy credits Bush with a series of accolades that sound bumper-sticker-ready: “Persistence, courage, principle, strategic thinking.” He likes to say “the job is never done,” Handy told the ballroom crowd at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington today. This room with representatives from 45 states, he said,“attests to the fact that the job isn’t done.”
That job, as Bush tells it, is getting a nation back on track. And it starts in the classroom.
It is, he said, “a cause greater than ourselves” — the “restoration” of America, founded on education.
“Past is prologue… and history has a way of repeating itself, so learning from history is important,” said Bush, citing a recently read book by the sociologist Charles Murray about “this great challenge that faces our nation.” The U.S., Bush said, has moved from a nation of shared ideals to “a country that is changing not for the better.”
“We have these huge gaps in income,” he said, with “people born into poverty who will stay in poverty.”
“This ideal of who we are as a nation… it’s going away, it’s leaving us,” he said, maintaining that “there is one path that can change this course… a child-centered education.”
“Where is the outrage, where is the shame of this?” Bush asked in his keynote address to the fifth annual series of foundation conferences that have roamed from Washington in election years to other venues such as San Francisco. “This is not the America that we love… We ought to shake the complacency off of us… to challenge the complacency of the time.”
“I would suggest to you that high standards — I’m not kidding standards — is the first step,” he said, calling for a system of common measurements nationally and teacher evaluations based on their professional skills, not their union membership or tenure. Those standards, the offering of choices such as charter schools and tuition vouchers and technology that allows students to advance at their own pace are the key, he said. “If we stay true to these five ideals… we can reverse this trend and shake the complacency.”
“All children are not above average… I know that will be a shock to a lot of people,” he said, yet testing will reveal who needs the most improvement. “We’ll have a challenge — will we have the courage to stay the course, to faithfully implement higher standards… and recognize the fact that too many of our children are lagging behind…. We have to start with higher expectations for the next generation.
“If we’ve learned one lesson from reform, it is this: we continually underestimate children…. It will take some adjustment but our kids will rise to the challenge,” Bush said. “We reward the things we want more of… We are not as happy when there is mediocrity… and when there is failure, we should have no tolerance for it.”
The words are familiar.
We’ve heard them from this Bush since 1994, in Florida and at his national conferences. We heard them from his brother from Texas in 2000. And we heard them again today in Washington, a few blocks from the White House.