Education debate tests Jeb Bush

House Republicans’ push this month to overhaul No Child Left Behind is a political landmine for Jeb Bush, who’s being forced to defend his education policies just as he’s set to launch his presidential bid.

Emails recently surfaced revealing that the former Florida governor offered to help the Obama administration reauthorize the 2002 education legislation, which was signed into law by Jeb’s older brother, President George W. Bush.

{mosads}The intraparty fight over whether to reform or gut No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is putting renewed focus on Bush’s status as the lone top-tier GOP presidential hopeful still backing the Common Core state education standards for reading and math.

Bush’s conservative critics on Capitol Hill say he’s simply out of step with the party when it comes to education.

“It’s about federal control of education, whether it’s watered-down federal control or No Child Left Behind federal control,” said conservative Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is supporting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the 2016 presidential race. Bush is going to “have a hard time with Republican voters with a position like that.

“If you have a position on No Child Left Behind or Common Core that is contrary to the wishes of the majority of Republican voters, you’re going to have a problem,” Amash said.

“Jeb Bush is the only one holding on to Common Core. I think that’s toxic,” conservative Louisiana Rep. John Fleming added.

For his part, Bush argued in a Washington Post op-ed that “state and local authorities and, most important, parents” should be in charge of setting education policy, calling on the federal government to play a “limited” role in public schools.

But Bush also defended his brother’s signature education law, writing that “most states had no accountability system” before NCLB.

“They plowed billions of taxpayer dollars into education bureaucracies, often getting nothing in return,” Bush said. “NCLB changed that by creating a common yardstick.

“NCLB is far from perfect. It doesn’t give states the flexibility they need, and the system can be gamed. But those flaws can be fixed in the reauthorization process.”

A 2009 email, unearthed last week by BuzzFeed, shed new light on Bush’s efforts to work with Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, to reauthorize NCLB. Patricia Levesque, then CEO of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, could meet with Duncan’s top aides, Bush suggested in the email.

On Common Core, Bush has been unapologetic about his support — declaring “high standards are better than low standards” — even as polls show conservative voters largely opposed to the K-12 academic regime. Other 2016 GOP rivals, including Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, once endorsed Common Core in their states but now are running away as fast as they can, leaving Bush to carry the standards’ mantle by himself.

The two-term Florida governor will formally announce he’s running for president on June 15.

The House’s NCLB reform bill won’t affect Common Core; instead, the legislation reinforces current law, which bars the federal government from getting involved in setting curriculums.   

But the education bill, dubbed the Student Success Act, has divided the House GOP conference for months, even as it’s taken a back seat to bigger intraparty battles over immigration, abortion and trade.

In March, GOP leaders had to postpone a vote on NCLB after conservatives revolted, complaining it didn’t go far enough to cut Washington out of K-12 education policy.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has vowed to bring back the legislation by month’s end. And while Education Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) has been aggressively courting conservatives, he has shown no signs he could cave to their demands and allow them to amend it.

“We’ve very close,” Kline told The Hill, when asked if he had enough votes to pass the bill.

A less conservative, bipartisan bill to replace NCLB cleared the Senate in April, so the disagreement among House Republicans is mostly about what would hand them the best negotiating position before lawmakers try to merge the two bills in a conference committee.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, including Fleming and Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), say they won’t get on board unless they’re given a chance to vote on several amendments, including one that would allow states to opt out of federal education programs without the move affecting their funding.

“Our bill as it stands is dead on arrival with the president anyway, so why don’t we at least do what we believe?” Salmon told The Hill, referring to Obama’s threat to veto the Kline bill. “It’s just for show. He’s not going to sign it, so why don’t we at least do what we believe?”

NCLB expired in 2007, but the law’s federal requirements have remained in place since then. It forces states to test all public school students in math and reading each year from the third to eighth grade, then again in high school.

Critics have argued the law focuses too much on standardized tests and on penalizing poor-performing schools.

Not doing more to dismantle NCLB would be a problem for the entire 2016 GOP field, Salmon said, but especially for Bush, who promotes himself as an education reformer.

“No Child Left Behind is so wildly unpopular on both sides of the aisle, across the country,” the Arizona lawmaker said. “And virtually all education people I’ve talked to in my district, they hate it: administrators, teachers, parents.”

Bush allies, however, are urging him to stand his ground on NCLB, which they credit for helping minority and low-income students, as well as those with disabilities.

“I’m sick and tired of Republicans apologizing for the law that saved public education in this country,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R), a former Miami-area school board member who now serves on the House Education Committee. “Despite its flaws, NCLB has made public schools accountable and shined a spotlight on America’s most vulnerable children.

“Jeb Bush should be very proud of his contributions to this cause.”

Tags Arne Duncan John Fleming Justin Amash Matt Salmon Rand Paul
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