With the announcement by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that he is exploring a run for the presidency in 2016, school reform has suddenly leaped to the political front page. Only twice before have major presidential candidates–Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000–placed education at the center of their domestic platform. Carter backed the creation of a U. S. Department of Education, and W. called for a national accountability framework that foreshadowed passage of No Child Left Behind.
Of course, no one wins the presidency simply by having an education policy. The public will always be concerned first and foremost about dangers abroad and jobs at home. And remedies for Obamacare and illegal immigration will certainly be required of all those seeking occupancy of the White House. But if education will not be the only issue–or even the most important issue—it will be mentioned in every single presidential debate held in 2016.
What a difference from 2012! In Republican primary races, little was said beyond expressions of vague support for school vouchers. In the general election, Mitt Romney hit hard on unemployment, while President Obama attacked the banks and his Republican predecessor. Congress did nothing about No Child Left Behind, and the Administration pursued its reforms within the quiet world of executive orders and regulatory changes.
Nor was 2012 unusual in this regard. Most of the time presidential campaigns ignore schools. Reagan wanted to abolish the department of education, but it was not a major theme of his anti-government, pro-defense campaign. For Bill Clinton, it was the economy stupid. And for him it worked, a fact which Hillary Clinton will not be reluctant to mention, should she choose to run.
But in 2016 neither Jeb Bush’s Republican primary opponents nor Hillary Clinton nor even Elizabeth Warren will be able to ignore the poor state of the nation’s schools. For they will be facing a candidate with the strongest school reform credentials any presidential candidate has ever had.
Neither Carter nor W. had credentials equivalent to those of Florida’s former governor. When in office, Jeb persuaded the legislature to introduce a massive new reading program, created an accountability system that included vouchers for students who were attending failing schools, founded the nation’s first statewide digital learning school, asked districts to hold back for another year those third graders who were unable to read, introduced a high school exit exam, established the country’s most comprehensive warehouse of education data, and much more. During his tenure in office, student performance in Florida skyrocketed upward at a faster rate than in virtually any other part of the United States. The gains were particularly strong among Florida’s Hispanic students who according to one study outperform, on average, all the students in the State of California.
Admittedly, for the modern 24-hour news cycle, those accomplishments are stuck in the distant past. Jeb was a term-limited governor who served from 1999 to 2006, long before many of today’s reporters had come of age. But after leaving office the former governor established the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) and, from that platform, has campaigned for Florida-like reforms throughout the country. He helped create Chiefs for Change, a group of state education officers from Maine to New Mexico who have committed themselves to altering the education status quo. The many state-level policy changes of recent years owe a lot to the jump start given by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative, Republican gains at the state level in 2010 and the leadership of other potential presidential candidates, such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindahl. But ExcelinEd and the former Florida Governor have also played a critical role, especially in the West and the South.
(Full Disclosure: Jeb Bush was also willing in 2008 to take on the chairmanship of the advisory committee to the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, which I direct.)
In presidential politics, Democrats “own” the education issue, it is generally believed. Democrats campaigned for federal aid to education, while Republicans either opposed the idea or prevaricated. Under strong Democratic pressure to give money to the schools, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in Sputnik’s wake, finally agreed to a small math and science program. But it was Democrat Lyndon Johnson who slammed through the first large-scale education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, by packing all the interest groups into one room and telling them not to leave until they agreed to a bill. When he sent the agreement down Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress did not make a single alteration, and it was passed within the first 100 days following Johnson’s election as president in his own right. Later, Democrat Jimmy Carter worked with a Democratic Congress to create a separate Department of Education.
Despite Reagan’s opposition to the formation of that department, he nearly became known as the education president when he almost inadvertently allowed U. S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell to appoint a commission to look into the state of the American high school. Who was to know that its report, “A Nation at Risk,” would find the words—“a tide of mediocrity”– to express the nation’s education discontent? But Reagan had no policy to back up the commission’s report—other than to appoint Bill Bennett, who used the bully pulpit to promote conservative values but who could do little to effect policy change.
Still, “A Nation at Risk” gave Republicans an opportunity to “own” the education issue, if only a Republican president could find the way forward. The public was gradually coming to understand that more money for schools was not the only—or even the best—solution to what was plaguing American schools. Texas Governor George W. Bush came up with a solution: Stealing an accountability arrow from the Texas Democrats’ quiver—his predecessor, Ann Richards, had been the first to test students in that state—Bush endorsed her policies, gathered political support from their initial successes, and made them the cornerstone of his “compassionate conservative” campaign.
Neither political party “owns” the education issue today. President Obama has struggled mightily against the union-dominated Democratic left to pursue an administrative policy of school reform via Race to the Top and waivers from No Child Left Behind. But divisions within the Democratic party—especially the divide between minority groups desperate for better schools and teacher unions desperate to protect the “rights” of their members—have prevented the Obama Administration from driving school reform. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill have wandered in the dark, wishfully wondering what to do next.
Jeb Bush will not get a free pass on education, of course. Negotiating his way through the messy political thicket known as Common Core standards during the primary season will undoubtedly be his biggest challenge. Aggressive conservative activists will certain condemn Common Core as a national plot designed by the Obama Administration to impose liberal values on conservative communities. Jeb Bush has chosen to fight back against such nonsense, leaving a significant opening to his opponents. And should Bush make it the general election, he will encounter the full force of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, two of the wealthiest, most powerful interest groups in the United States, two groups that supported Clinton against Obama in 2008 and who will back her with even greater enthusiasm in 2016.
So school reform will be on the Campaign 2016 agenda. Get ready.
Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research.