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Will Jeb Bush’s Education Record Win Him The Nomination, Or Destroy Him?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s announcement Monday that he is running for president instantly makes him both a man to beat and a top target in a crowded GOP field. Bush’s big donor base, establishment backing, and more moderate reputation will almost certainly make him the top target of other GOP candidates. Whether he can survive their onslaught and emerge as the nominee will depend in large part on how well he can harness his record on a single, signature issue: Education.

Education is Bush’s biggest policy passion and gave him his biggest successes as a governor. It’s not a stretch to say that Bush has been the single biggest driver of conservative education reform in the past 20 years. Bush simply can’t afford to stay away from the issue. But all of his accomplishments are counter-balanced by the burden of Common Core, which has the potential to undo his candidacy if handled poorly.

Common Core complicates what is otherwise an extremely strong education record for Bush– one that should have ample appeal to conservatives. Back in the late 1990s, Florida’s schools were among the country’s worst. Bush made education a centerpiece of his 1998 gubernatorial bid, and fully delivered on that promise in 1999 with his A-Plus Plan.

A-plus made a series of sweeping changes to Florida schools, based on three core principles: higher standards, accountability for schools, and increased school choice. The plan was innovative at the time, but today its components have been copied by Republicans across the country.

Under A-plus, every single public school was given a letter grade reflecting its performance. It sought to limit social promotion (passing students on to the next grade regardless of academic performance) by requiring students to pass a reading test to graduate from the third to the fourth grade. Most notably, it created one of the country’s first private school voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Under the program, students attending schools with failing letter grades could receive a voucher to attend a school of their choice, including a fully private one. Bush’s initial voucher program was struck down by a state court in 2006, but has since been revived in a new form and continues to be one of the country’s largest.

Bush’s education efforts weren’t limited to A-plus. Before becoming governor, he helped open Florida’s first charter school in 1996, and after being elected he worked to expand the number of charters.

When A-plus was passed in 1999, Bush predicted that Florida’s schools would experience a “renaissance”– and he was right. In the past 17 years, Florida scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal standardized test administered to select student populations in each state, have been among the fastest-rising in the country, and the situation for low-income students is particularly improved. On the 2013 NAEP, Florida’s low-income fourth graders finished first in the nation in reading, compared to 35th place (out of just 40 states) in 1999.

Charter schools have been a big hit as well, with over 220,000 Florida students enrolled at over 600 schools– more than 10 percent of the state’s entire K-12 student body.

Ironically, had Bush stopped caring about education once he left the governor’s mansion in 2007, the issue would probably be a much bigger asset for him today. Instead, Bush dedicated his post-gubernatorial days to making the A-plus Plan a national model. In 2007, he established the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), a think-tank dedicated to pushing his idea of school reform. ExcelinEd has drawn big donations from organizations like the Gates Foundation, and has played a significant role promoting school choice and accountability measures in more than 20 other states.

While ExcelinEd has helped keep Bush in the public eye as a policy activist, it’s also helped create his great weakness: Common Core. At the helm of ExcelinEd, Bush was an early and strong proponent of Common Core when it was still being created by state governors in 2010. To Bush, Common Core was simply a means to take his vision of higher school standards nationwide in an effort to replicate Florida’s improvement.

Many Republicans, however, have become convinced that Common Core’s national reach represents a federal takeover of education, and most GOP contenders (many of whom once happily backed the Core) have been happy to join the opposition. Bush, though, has continued to fight hard for the new standards. In 2014, for instance, he visited Tennessee to urge lawmakers there to hold the line against an “avalanche” of criticism. Last November, he spoke at a D.C. education conference where he called the backlash against the Core “troubling” and argued that it should be seen as the “new minimum” for states in education.

In 2015, perhaps belatedly seeing just how toxic Common Core is to some Republicans, Bush started to avoid talking about it. Last February, Bush spoke for 35 minutes at a Florida education conference without mentioning Common Core once, instead making a vague statement about his support for “higher standards.” When he can’t avoid Common Core, Bush is careful to emphasize that he is opposed to any federal control of education standards.

“Every school should have high standards,” Bush said during his Monday announcement, “and the federal government should have nothing to do with setting them.”

Still, his actions have tied him so irrevocably to Common Core that he simply can’t disown the standards at this point without making a blatant flip-flop.

Now that Bush is a candidate, that could be a problem. He can expect months of fierce criticism from his Republican opponents, all of whom oppose Common Core. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has pledged to “repeal every word” of it. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has argued the issue is so toxic that no Republican can win while supporting it. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to announce a run next week, has defined himself in the past year by his fierce opposition to Common Core and can be expected to tear into Bush for it repeatedly.

The attacks will be fierce, but not necessarily lethal for Bush. Polls of the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina show that while Republican voters there don’t love Common Core, they’re also willing to vote for a candidate who supports it. If Bush can get primary voters to focus on his manifold other achievements in education, which are far more popular and appealing to red-meat conservatives, he may yet be the party’s nominee in 2016.

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