Bush offers impassioned defense of his education record
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Jeb Bush deviated from his prepared remarks at the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday to give an impassioned defense of his education reform record.

Republicans believe Bush's support for Common Core is among the former Florida governor's biggest liabilities in the GOP primaries. GOP strategist Karl Rove has said Bush's support for the set of nationalized education standards will be his biggest challenge in seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

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Bush did not implement the standards while he was in office, but has promoted them through his education foundation. On Wednesday, he signaled he intends to combat criticism against him on this front by highlighting the education turnaround he oversaw as governor of Florida.

“We decided that the right to rise was also a civil right,” Bush said. “So we went to work to change education in Florida, and boy did we.” 

“The net result after 10 years of struggle, and believe me, the tire marks are on my forehead for this reason, is that we moved the needle in student learning,” Bush said.

In the most fiery portion of Bush’s Wednesday speech — his first major policy address since announcing his likely candidacy for president — he thundered about how his initiatives turned the Florida education system around.

“We grade schools in Florida to have true accountability so moms and dads know exactly where schools stand,” Bush said. “We raised expectations and standards, and we assessed faithfully to those standards. We made sure that every child counted in the system, that they weren’t cast aside if they were struggling readers or had problems. We eliminated social promotion in third grade, this insidious policy that exists in the country where, if you’re functionally illiterate, you’re passed along to fourth grade, where the gaps begin to grow and grow and grow, and the social costs grow as well.”

None of the remarks on education reform were in the text of Bush’s speech provided to reporters by his leadership PAC. But the former Florida governor was at his most animated when he left the teleprompter to deliver the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks defending his record on education.

“We expanded school choice programs in every capacity, whether it was digital learning, vouchers or the expansion of charter schools, and Florida is the state that has consistently improved the gap among outcomes between African-American and white students,” Bush said.

“Florida’s Hispanic kids are the best of any group of Hispanic students in the United States, in fact two grade levels ahead of the average,” he added. “Our graduation rate was 50th out of 50 states, and we have moved it successfully each and every year to the point where it’s something where we have a 25 percent gain in the graduation rate, and that will continue to grow.”

A Bush spokesperson told The Hill on Wednesday that his Wednesday speech was not a defense of Common Core in particular, but said that he still supports the higher standards associated with the practice.

The former Florida governor has signaled he won’t bend from his positions to appease the base. 

Bush’s support for Common Core, which was originally a conservative idea, separates him from other potential GOP contenders. The issue has become toxic in conservative circles.

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulBrexit leader Farage pushing US-UK trade deal to Trump Senate sends annual defense bill to Obama's desk GOP rep: Trump has 'extra-constitutional' view of presidency MORE (R-Ky.), who campaigned against Common Core on a swing through New Hampshire last month, has joined Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Hill's 12:30 Report Cruz defends Trump's Taiwan call Ark., Texas senators put cheese dip vs. queso to the test MORE (R-Texas) as co-sponsor on a bill to protect state and local school districts from federal intrusion. 

Paul has also predicted that Common Core will sink Bush in the primaries.

Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Rubio House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief What the 2016 election can tell us about 2018 midterms Fight over water bill heats up in Senate MORE, whose star rose under Bush in the state legislature, has joined the chorus of conservatives decrying Common Core as a federal takeover. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was once a Common Core supporter, has now declared it “dead as a brand.”

It was also believed that 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who recently announced he wouldn’t run for president, was considering a third consecutive run because he believed he could run to the right of Bush on Common Core and immigration reform.

On Wednesday, Bush threw down the gauntlet to those contenders or primary voters who might question his record on education reform.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not possible with reform and leadership to be able to move the needle,” he said. “My guess is, the hundreds of thousands of kids that can now read and write are going to be living productive lives in Miami, and we’ll be blessed as a community because of that. All communities ought to be able to do that and having a reform orientation is part of that strategy.”

Still, his support for Common Core could be an issue in the primaries. Republican strategists in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina say Common Core has become the hot-button issue among grassroots voters in their states.

This post was updated and corrected at 3:06 p.m.