TALLAHASSEE -- Nobody felt the sting of former state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett’s resignation quite like Jeb Bush.
Bush played a key role in recruiting Bennett from Indiana and was among his most ardent supporters — even after Bennett became entangled in an alleged grade-fixing flap.
When Bennett stepped down on Aug. 1, it was the latest in a string of setbacks for Bush, who has spent the last five years pushing an ambitious education reform agenda across the country. Earlier this summer, Bush’s signature model of grading schools on an A-to-F scale came under attack in Florida. Then came a crushing wave of criticism from tea party groups, which oppose the new national standards Bush is promoting.
The political fallout could be significant. Many observers believe Bush is using his role as national education reformer to position himself for a run at the presidency in 2016. That hinges partly on success in Florida, where Bush created his template for school reform.
Bush, who has ducked questions about his presidential ambitions, did not return an email seeking comment.
When asked what Bennett’s resignation would mean for Bush, Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said: “The question should be what will the resignation mean for students. Improving student achievement is at the heart of Gov. Bush’s passion for reform and has been for the 20 years he has devoted to this cause.”
The latest polls show Bush in the middle of the pack among potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates. He trails frontrunner New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Congressman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, according to an average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
Bush’s involvement in education policy dates back to 1994, when he lost his first bid for governor and decided to launch an education think tank known as the Foundation for Florida’s Future. Two years later, Bush and South Florida activist T. Willard Fair opened the state’s first charter school in Miami’s urban core.
As governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush introduced the A-to-F system of grading schools and oversaw the rapid expansion of school choice options, including magnet, virtual and charter schools. He set up a national education foundation after leaving office, and used it to spread similar policies to at least three dozen states.
Bush’s influence has remained strong in Florida. But there is evidence that he may be losing clout.This spring, Bush and the Foundation for Florida’s Future were unable to pass the parent trigger bill, which would have allowed parents to demand changes at low-performing schools. They suffered another defeat last month, when the state Board of Education approved a “safety-net” to prevent school grades from dropping dramatically in the wake of new, more challenging student state exams. The foundation had argued that artificial inflation would undermine the grading system.
“The long sleep is now over,” said Kathleen Oropeza, of the Orlando-based parent group Fund Education Now. “People are starting to realize that Jeb and his reforms are not good for children and not good for schools. They are meant to privatize public education.”
Bennett’s resignation gave critics another reason to grumble.