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At education summit, Jeb Bush seeks balance on Common Core under 2016 glare

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens to a speaker before giving his keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens to a speaker before giving his keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP

This town is lush with speculation about who will run for president so when Jeb Bush took the stage Thursday morning at his Foundation for Excellence in Education summit, there was great interest in what he had to say.

The former Florida governor stuck to the wonky contours of education policy — it is why he is here, after all — but in doing so Bush also tried to finesse a major issue that would confront him if he decides to enter the hunt for the 2016 Republican nomination: Common Core.

Bush said the debate over the education standards has been “troubling” and Common Core should be “the new minimum in classrooms.”

But he readily added, “I respect those who have weighed in on all sides of this issue” and said states choosing another path should “aim even higher, be bolder.”

“Even if we don’t all agree on Common Core, there are more important principles for us to agree on,” he said. “We need to pull together whenever we can.”

He was attempting to focus on higher academic rigor, not the tarnished Common Core brand. Bush has been doing this for a while but the 2016 presidential speculation, nearing a climax as candidates announce their intentions, has put the controversy in a new light.

“He realized this is a political hot potato and he’s trying to be careful how much he comes across, but I think deep down in his heart he does support it,” said Jose Afonso, a charter school advocate from New Hampshire who attended the summit and is not a Common Core supporter.

“And look,” Afonso added, “who doesn’t support elevating the standards in America?”

The education summit is an annual event for Bush’s foundation, which he created after leaving office, and runs through Friday. It features panel discussions from a variety of speakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., former New York City Public Schools chancellor Joel Klein and state education chiefs.

Bush, 61, is deeply considering running and would be a leading contender amid a large and skilled field of Republican candidates. Common Core is a threat, however, because it has stoked intense backlash among conservative activists who see it as a federal takeover — inaccurately so, proponents say, though Bush engaged in a little federal government bashing Thursday.

“Nobody in this debate has a bad motive,” Bush said, talking to hundreds gathered in the carpeted ballroom of a Marriott near downtown, but also intending his remarks for a larger audience.

“But let’s take a step back from this debate for a second,” Bush went on.

“This morning over 213 million Chinese students went to school and nobody debated whether academic expectations should be lowered in order to protect the students’ self-esteem. Yet in Orange County, Florida, that exact debate did occur. And so the school board voted to make it impossible for a student to receive a grade below a 50.”

Still, Bush held up the state he governed for two terms as a model of reform and battles against school unions and administrators. The credentials would be a centerpiece of a campaign for higher office.

“There wasn’t anything that said, 'Oh, he’s definitely going to run for president,’ ” said Carrie Monica, who works with Stand for Children Louisiana, a group that supports Common Core. “But when I think about who we need in office to take strong stands for kids, I’m very encouraged by everything I heard today.”

Her state underscores the battle over Common Core. Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also is considering a run for president, has gone from supporter to hostile critic and has filed a lawsuit charging the federal government with forcing states to adopt the standards. Many view his posture as a political move as the criticism has swelled from conservatives.

Bush opened his 20-minute address by telling the audience that 61 years ago Thurgood Marshall came to Washington — and stayed in the same hotel — to argue Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Barriers fell, Bush said, but black and Hispanic children still lag.

“This is a civil rights crisis in every sense of the term,” he said.

The speech attracted a large but not an overwhelming number of journalists, with more viewing via webcast. Most were there because of the presidential buzz. But concrete clues about Bush’s future were absent.

“Trust me, I was listening for that,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida lawyer and Bush ally. It’s an impossible game to play just because it’s so personal and he’s holding his cards close. This was just Gov. Bush doing for what he’s been doing for the last seven years and promoting education reform. It’s not the name. It’s not the politics. It’s the standards.”

Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.

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