On Education, a Rare Voice for Bipartisanship

By: Gintautas Dumcius
By: Gintautas Dumcius

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 18, 2010 --

Education is the one major policy place where Democrats and Republicans can put aside partisanship and agree, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday night, saying he was optimistic that the new Congress will be able to come together on school reform.

"I can’t think of another policy area where a win can happen where both sides would feel like they did the right thing," Bush said, arguing that creating jobs and reforming education were the top two winning issues for both Democratic and Republican candidates for governor this year.

"We’ve got to find one place where we find common ground because it may be contagious," he added. "At least one, let’s find one."

His comments came at a Harvard University forum with former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, John Podesta, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia public school system. The forum was titled "Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Education and the Future of Reform."

Bush, governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, is a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics.

"This election wasn’t just about a shift to the right," but also a "repudiation of the political class in Washington," Bush said.

Podesta, who also served in the Clinton administration, said candidates elected to Congress have been moving away from the center and towards their respective corners on the left and right. "The center's hollowed out," he said.

Podesta said President Barack Obama is focused on education reform as an area for bipartisan compromise. He said the "Race to the Top" proposal, which set aside money for states in the form of competitive grants, caused states to change across a wide range of reform issues, some even before the legislation was finalized.

“It set off a competition, if you will, among the states," he said.

Podesta pointed to President George W. Bush working together with the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy on education reform through the No Child Left Behind Act. “They both got a little out of the comfort zone," he said. “It’s going to take that same kind of dynamic.”

The former president’s younger brother, who often is mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, challenged education policy makers to do the same, as he did when he pushed Florida to enact reforms aimed at increasing accountability in schools. Bush also championed school choice, pushing through a major voucher system, the main part of which has since been voided by the courts.

Still, Bush urged, "Be big, be bold."

After the forum, Bush said he had spoken "a couple of times" with Gov.-elect Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, but he had not heard any specific plans on education from him. However, Bush said he understood Scott to be “interested in developing reforms and making education a priority," he told the News Service.

Asked whether he thought Scott would be "big" and bold," Bush said, "I'm not sure I have to worry about that with him. He'll be fine in that regard. Of course, the minute I said that, then I realized that Michelle Rhee has been fired because the mayor of D.C. was big and bold."

For her part, when asked by Spellings, who moderated the forum, about sustaining public will for education reform, Rhee said, "I have mixed emotions right now."

Rhee, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate to go to work on education policy in a number of states, including in Florida, said the District of Columbia saw "outsized gains" in student achievement in a short period of time, but "it didn't result in people saying we want more of this and let's keep going."

"Do-gooder reformers" try to appeal to politicians about what is right for children, but unions are sometimes "running their campaigns," she said. “That’s why I feel like if we just rely on the politicians on this, we’re in trouble.”

"We need to make education an economic issue and the driver to make America number one," she added.

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