The visit today to an inner city Miami school by President Barack Obama, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is ostensibly about education reform. But I think it might also be about something else…
The White House placed an op-ed in the Miami Herald in tandem with the visit. An excerpt:
“Every day educators across the country are challenging the status quo and showing that low-performing schools can be turned around. Today, the President and I will visit Miami Central Senior High School to talk to some of those educators. Central has received nearly $800,000 in federal funding to support and accelerate turnaround efforts already underway.
Working with the school district and teachers union, Central promoted a strong school leader to be principal and replaced more than half the staff. It extended learning time after-school and during the summer, and engaged the community by offering Parent Academy classes for parents on graduation requirements and financial literacy. More than 80 percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch. Yet academic performance is steadily improving — and students and teachers are showing that a committed school can beat the demographic odds.
The burdens of poverty are real, and overcoming those burdens takes hard work and resources. But poverty is not destiny. Hundreds of schools in high-poverty communities are closing achievement gaps. America can no longer afford a collective shrug when disadvantaged students are trapped in inferior schools and cheated of a quality education for years on end.
President Obama and I are determined to challenge low expectations at underperforming schools. For the first time, the federal government is providing billions of dollars to states — roughly $4 billion all told over the next five years — to help turn around the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools.
These schools represent just five percent of America’s public schools. Yet unlike in the past, these schools will now be instituting one of four far-reaching reform models to boost student achievement. Our redesigned School Improvement Grants program (SIG) will provide up to $6 million for each school targeted for turnaround over a period of three years.
Why is the administration taking this unprecedented step? The easy, timid approach to turning around low-performing schools has been tried over and over again — and failed.”
The takeaway for Obama supporters, some of whom have expressed queasiness at the optics of hanging with teachers union enemy Jeb in the midst of the Wisconsin and Ohio union-busting dramas, is that the president’s education push is not a rejection of public schools. He and Jeb and Arne could have met up at a charter school and didn’t. Central is very much a public school – and a majority Black one at that.
It’s also not a repudiation of teacher’s unions. One of the alternatives under the president’s “Race to the Top” grant program, in which Florida is a participant — is to close troubled schools altogether and either keep them closed, or reopen them as charters. Central, which had been a chronic F school, could have been in line for that. But the school chose the “turnaround” option, which meant replacing personnel, in consultation with the local union. The teacher’s union in Miami was a partner in turning Miami Central around – not an opponent.
Make no mistake, though. Jeb Bush also has a vested interest here. He likes to think his education policies — which often put him in open war with Florida’s teacher’s unions, were responsible for turning Central around (he conveniently ignores the small matter of someone else being governor during the four years when Central began its climb back from oblivion, because Jeb tends to think Charlie Crist didn’t pay him enough homage…) Now, with a guy in the governor’s mansion who knows absolutely nothing about Florida, let alone education, Jeb and his Foundation for Excellence in Education has a big voice in education in the state, with the organization’s executive director, Patricia Levesque, advising Rick Scott formally (where charter school zealot Michelle Rhee is still “informal.”) Jeb’s ideas – on charters schools and on vouchers – permeate Scott’s plans for the state’s public schools. Jeb wants to own any improvements in Florida education, and odds are, Scott is so discombobulated, he won’t stand in the way.
So what’s really going on here? Why are these two men — who have been so often at odds — appearing together today? Is it just about the congeniality of the presidential family club? What do the president and the former governor/son and brother of former presidents get out of it?
I think what the president gets is a chance to show off his bipartisan bona fides, and on the same day he’s in town to do some partisan fundraising. He gets to highlight his eduction agenda, and show that it has Republican support; from the brother of a former president, no less. And he gets to do it without having to pal around with Rick Scott, who is one of the most disliked governors in America among his own citizens, perhaps only exceeded in toxicity by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich.
For Jeb, he gets to play de facto governor, essentially pushing Scott aside and asserting himself as the titular leader of Florida Republicans, which, let’s face it, he still is. Jeb also gets to throw up a hand at the tea party, flouting the fact that he can get away with something even he slammed Charlie Crist for: being cordial to Barack Obama; and he gets to put his stamp on the issue of education.
Why does Jeb need a stamp, and some distance from the tea party, and some airtime on an issue that brings Americans together — and why is it good for him to get all of that in a minority community, no less?
If you ask me, it’s because Jeb Bush is running for president – not in 2012 – but in 2016.
He’s laying the groundwork for that now, because he’s smart enough to know that winning in 2012 is unlikely, while the “jump ball” election in ’16 is a better bet, especially as the toxicity of the Bush brand slowly ebbs, while the reality of Jeb as the reasonable alternative to the GOP freak show gets established.
Of course this is all speculation. I’ve asked Jeb Bush once before if he’s running for president, and he demurred. But TRR sources say he’s more likely to run than not. And there is this Bush family history of claiming to be the “education president.”
President Obama is taking a calculated risk by raising Jeb’s stature today, knowing it will hurt Jeb with the tea set to hang with him, but help him with the middle. You’ve got to assume he’s decided it’s worth the risk to raise his own numbers with the kind of people who like Jeb and care about education: moderate Republicans and independents.
In the end, everything is about politics. Even education.
UPDATE: The Herald has a transcript of the president’s remarks.