In Nashville today, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush sat down for what was billed as “a candid conversation” on education. Jeb Bush has built a reputation as an education reformer.
After stepping down as governor in 2007, Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which advocates for school choice and higher standards in public education.
“[Education] is the common denominator of a successful life,” Bush told Haslam.
When asked how he would fund changes to the status quo, especially higher pay for individual teachers whose students produce impressive gains on state tests, Bush admitted that it was helpful to have money behind the reforms, “You’re asking people to eat broccoli—it’s always good to have some hot-cheese sauce. The money is like that hot-cheese sauce,” Bush said.
Haslam then asked Bush how his support of a set of tough, national standards known as the Common Core State Standards squared with his conservative principals and belief in state’s rights. Like Florida, Tennessee has adopted the Common Core Standards.
“As Republicans, what do we think the government’s role is in higher standards?” Haslam asked.
Bush pointed out that the standards come from the National Governors’ Association, saying he would “be really nervous if these were federal government standards, but they’re not.” He added, “I’m a conservative, but this is a national imperative. We have close to no standards.”
Education reform is a high-profile political issue whose supporters and detractors do not break neatly along party lines. Bush’s education foundation receives funding from major Republican Party donors as well as the philanthropic foundations run Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. However, the lack of partisan rancor surrounding education reform does not mean these decisions are without controversy. The reforms Bush enacted as governor of Florida drew the ire of teachers’ unions and their political allies. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman asked Bush about the political push-back he faced. “It was a big fight,” Bush said.
The event was hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (S.C.O.R.E.), a Nashville think tank founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly were in the audience. Today’s discussion comes just a few weeks into a legislative session where Tennessee lawmakers are expected to vote on controversial education bills, including a statewide authorizer for charter schools and a generous school voucher program.