By Will Weissert
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his rising-political-star son, George P. Bush, urged Texas on Tuesday to dismantle the “monopoly of public education” by dramatically expanding access to charter schools, embracing online learning and overhauling how teachers are evaluated.
But neither man offered any hints about his political future.
The elder Bush, who is often mentioned as a possible contender for president in 2016, told an education forum organized by the Texas Business Leadership Council, “I urge you to be big and bold, and if people get offended, so what?”
“Politics can’t always be like mamby-pamby land,” said Bush, who said America’s public schools have for too long been organized to best suit the “economic needs of adults” such as unionized teachers and school administrators, rather than students.
Bush was governor from 1999 until 2007 and pushed an overhaul of Florida public schools, which he said helped improved standardized tests scores enough that the state’s fourth graders went from near the bottom nationally in core subjects to among the country’s leaders.
Florida also adopted a school accountability rating system based on letter grades, increased online learning options and increased nontraditional classrooms, including charter schools.
Bush said that the Florida Virtual School, the nation’s oldest and largest vendor, now offers 400,000 courses via Internet, and 45 percent of Florida students currently are enrolled in charter schools, online classes or some other form of learning other than traditional public schools.
In Texas, state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee, has led an effort to expand charter schools and championed a voucher program that would extend government money directly to families to allow parents whose kids are in poor-performing public schools to move them to private ones.
In past years, efforts to expand vouchers have fizzled in Texas, however, and key leaders in the state House say they don’t think there is enough support to get such proposals through the lower chamber this year.
But Bush said public schools here and elsewhere have become “a public, unionized monopoly” and that the only way to weaken it is to expanded school choice while tightening teacher evaluation standards and limiting tenure.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Bush said he has helped Patrick draft education reform bills but added “it’s not like there’s a Xerox machine that spits out laws that work in every state.”
George P. Bush, meanwhile, originally had been scheduled to introduce his father Tuesday, but said that doing so was “very emotional” and instead delivered a short warm-up speech.
He has announced plans to seek statewide office in Texas next year. He hasn’t said which one but said he’s leaning toward land commissioner — though he’s been mentioned as a possible contender for attorney general or even governor.
The younger Bush said he didn’t intend to break news on his political future at the education forum but described teaching in an underprivileged Florida school after college and seeing firsthand “the power that can be unleashed with reform in an education system.”
His mother, Jeb Bush’s wife, is from Mexico and both men speak Spanish. But the younger Bush has been especially celebrated by Texas Hispanics who hope he can help the party connect with the state’s Hispanic voters. Hispanics are Texas’ fastest growing demographic but also overwhelmingly support Democrats.
Jeb Bush refused to comment on his son’s future except to say he was proud of him.
“Now I know what my Dad feels like,” Bush, whose father is former President George H.W. Bush, said after the event.
“It’s incredibly emotional. It’s pride and no trepidation because he’s been involved a lot,” Bush said of his son. “He’s been engaged in helping others, so he knows the ropes, he knows what it’s like, he knows what he’s getting into.”
The elder Bush has been seen by many nationally as a more moderate GOP voice. “The last two or three election cycles, we’ve been against things rather than for things,” Bush said following his speech.
But pressed on whether he should run for president to make sure those ideas are heard, he replied: “I have no idea what I’ll be doing four years from now. It’s way too early to speculate.”