Former Gov. Jeb Bush returned Thursday to the Florida Capitol for one of his few visits since his two terms as chief executive ended six years ago.
Bush, who now leads foundations that advance education policies similar to those he signed into law as governor, met behind closed doors with House and Senate members, frequently posing for pictures with lawmakers. Many had entered the Legislature since Bush left office.
Bush, however, insisted he came to Tallahassee without specific proposals to push.
“We provide assistance to people who want to advocate education reform policies, the Legislature is about ready to start,” Bush said outside Senate President Don Gaetz’s office. “I’m here to say hello to some friends and advance the cause of rising student achievement.”
Bush said he conveyed identical messages to lawmakers he encountered.
“Be big. Be bold. Fill the space,” Bush said.
Although Bush’s stop at the Capitol was his first since 2010, he still has plenty of allies. Fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Scott, is promoting changes to expand enrollment in charter schools.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has pushing for expanding online education in Florida, a concept now being studied by state university officials. He also has created a new education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee charged with exploring more charter-, virtual- and home-school options.
Legislation introduced this week in the Senate also would let parents in low-performing schools call for a private-management company to take over. A similar “parent trigger” bill died on a 20-20 vote last year in the Senate. But Bush said his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which advocates nationwide, is a strong proponent of the approach.
“It’s a pretty simple law. It says that if you’re in a failing school, parents ought to have the ability, if a majority want to, to have a say — simply a say — in providing advice on what structure a failing school should take,” Bush said. “That doesn’t say…they can convert to a charter school or something else. It just simply says, parents’ voice matters. If that’s a radical idea in America today, then we’re in a heap of trouble.”
“I think it’ll pass,” Bush said.
Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who adheres to Bush’s parental choice concepts, has been a frequent speaker at the former governor’s foundation meetings. Bennett is Florida’s third education commissioner in two years.
Gaetz, however, said that in their meeting, he and Bush didn’t speak about the parent trigger idea.
“We talked generally about where education policy was going in this country, we talked about online education,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz acknowledged that the pair shared concerns about deadlines that are nearing for many state and national education efforts. Among them, is the movement in Florida away from FCAT testing toward standards based on a common core curriculum, and the linking of teacher salaries to student performance.
“I told him we have a lot of reform that has been sort of shot off like rockets…and it’s all coming down from the sky now in the same place at the same time,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz said that Bush’s response was, “You need leadership. He sort of looked at me like, ‘Gaetz, do your job.’”
A Palm Beach Post analysis showed charter school, voucher and online education companies poured more than $2 million into last fall’s political campaigns, to primarily those of Republicans again demanding more alternatives to traditional public schools.
A deeply ideological battle is expected to unfold at Florida’s Capitol in coming months, with vast amounts of taxpayer dollars at stake. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education also draws a portion of its financing from the industry active in state campaigns.
Along with his Tallahassee stop, Bush is about to launch a book tour to coincide with the March 5 publishing of his book, Immigration Wars, written with Clint Bolick, a constitutional lawyer with the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. The book includes recommendations for easing the nation’s immigration problems.
Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Bush protege, has already advanced broad outlines for an immigration reform effort. Bush and Rubio are both frequently talked of as possible 2016 Republican presidential contenders.
Gaetz, who said he was courted by Bush to run for office in the mid-1990s, said he remains a Bush fan and is urging he get ready for the early caucus and primary states.
“I asked him three times, ‘when the bus is leaving for Iowa, and that I want to be on the bus,’” Gaetz said. “He laughed. But he didn’t say ‘no.’