Jeb Bush, the son of and brother of two American presidents, has his sights set on addressing the issue of education reform head-on through his Education Foundation, ExcelinEd, which he formed to improve education standards. His journey in the education field started with his experience in politics. “When I started running for office, I would tour the state and hear that the number one problem that people had was education training,” Bush said. This issue drove him to want to know more about the education system in the state of Florida, which hovers consistently at the bottom of the state education ratings. Bush also credits touring 250 Florida schools as a gateway to his understanding the enormity of the problem.
Stepping into the education arena became a spiritual calling, as well. “God has given every child the ability to learn. Yes, they learn in different ways. But what we ought to say is that because this is a gift from God, we should organize ourselves around that to reach kids.” He granted a rare interview to the ERLC about his latest work.
Why have you decided to address the issue of education?
When I started running for political office, I would always ask questions about what the top priorities were. In the state of Florida, in 1987-88, every county, every economic development group that I spoke with would say education and training were the number one issues. So my first passion was really how we take a pretty poor education system at the time in Florida and make sure that we have a phenomenal business climate where people can rise up, businesses can invest, and people can flourish. I was convinced at the time that school choice had to be an element of that.
I created Floridians for School Choice, the group that advocated for vouchers. We brought Polly Williams, an African American, very liberal state senator from Wisconsin to promote the idea of what she did in Milwaukee. The first voucher program was in Milwaukee. As a candidate in ‘94, and certainly in ‘98, when I went to visit 250 schools, I learned so much. My views didn’t change, but I learned how to advocate these pretty provocative ideas in a way that wasn’t threatening. I put a human context around it. Then I got to be governor, and I got to implement the things that I said I wanted to do. It was a joy of a lifetime.
After I left politics, it was through the Foundation for Excellence in Education that I continued to be involved with an incredible team of 55 to 60 people. We work in 40 states, and we advocate meaningful reform, empowering parents to make choices for their kids rather than systems and bureaucracies; high expectations; real accountability; ending social promotion in third grade; early childhood literacy; and trying to change high schools so that kids graduate college and/or career ready.
Is this a spiritual calling for you?
It’s at the heart of my spiritual beliefs. You start with the premise that God has given every child the ability to learn. They learn in different ways. Not every kid learns at the same speed or can reach the same levels of aptitude, but this is a God-given gift that every child gets. So, rather than excuse why kids can’t learn, we ought to say this is the gift from God. We also need to organize ourselves around these kids in a different way to ensure that they reach their God-given abilities. That doesn’t sound too crazy to me. Basically what else is there to be doing in life?
It’s been a great passion of mine, but it’s also been a great frustration because we haven’t moved the needle as fast as we should. The world’s moving at a faster pace than it was in 2000. It’s moving at warp speed right now. And all this disruption, culturally, economically, socially, and politically, requires young people to have a foundation from which they can thrive. And right now, too many kids don’t have that.
When you were governor of Florida, how did you see change take place?
When I became governor, we increased our graduation rate every year. I think it’s at 85% right now. Now, I think we need to raise the bar. I think we need to constantly be pushing the system to assure more and more kids are college and/or career ready. But, we’ve had big progress because we’ve had higher expectations for our children, and we’ve empowered parents in Florida . . . . My attitude is: let’s focus on children and students. We need to empower parents to give them the information they need to make informed decisions and have high expectations for every school. They are respected whether they’re a traditional public school, a charter school, a private school, or a parochial school. With high expectations for every kid, you’re going to get a better result.
How has COVID-19 disrupted the education system, and what advice would you give to leaders?
In March, we were all sent home. If you’re living in poverty and couldn’t afford the $40-per-month for broadband or one of the service providers for high-speed broadband, you’re out of luck. If you didn’t have a device to be able to learn on, you’re out of luck. And so we’ve been advising governors to direct some of this discretionary money toward dealing with this digital divide issue. It is ridiculous that we have a digital divide in this country. We are the most advanced country in the world technologically. I read somewhere that 400,000 teachers didn’t have access to high-speed broadband. How could they teach if they’re at home? So, that’s one thing.
The second thing I’d say is, as is the case with every policy in my mind, at least we should have a bias toward action — not a bias toward sitting in the fetal position saying, “This is overwhelming, and we can’t do anything about it.” A bias toward action means we should do everything possible to to open our schools and to keep them open in a safe way. So, I’m proud of the fact that Florida led the way in getting schools back open. Because we have big school districts, our governor, education commissioner, and most of the superintendents had a bias toward action. They were the first of the big school districts to act. They were the first to open, and they’ve not closed. And the fact is that we haven’t had a huge outbreak of COVID in our schools.
The learning gaps that started in the spring semester of last year . . . [are] going to hit low-income kids the hardest, and those gaps will grow. There should be a bias toward action, particularly for low-income communities, to make sure that they have access to the same quality education that more affluent families have right now in our country.
You have an influential last name. What if somebody’s last name is not Bush? What advice would you give them about getting involved?
We’re a bottom-up country. The best ideas come from the bottom-up, and the best advocacy comes from the bottom-up. And the best means by which you can make a difference is from the bottom-up. So first and foremost, if you’re a parent, get involved in your school. If you have school choice programs that are in your state that are under attack, protect them, defend them, and advocate for them.
I’m a huge advocate of local involvement — community involvement — to be able to make a difference in changing policy. If you notice, politicians do listen to people when they come and say, “Don’t take this away from me.” So, my advice is to be involved in your child’s education. If you don’t have children, be involved in the school. Be a mentor in religious institutions that have been fortified because they’re receiving this kind of support.
What advice would you give to President Biden?
I do what I’ve done with every president which is pray for their judgment, their discernment, and their health, because when presidents succeed, we all succeed. And I think that’s the first thing we ought to do — to encourage our president. Pray for him, and pray for public leaders, whether we agree with their policies or not. That’s a noble tradition in our country. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.
The second thing I’d say is I’d bet that the top-down approach doesn’t work . . . . There are lots of things that could happen, but if the mindset is we’re smarter than you and we don’t trust you, we’re going to get ugly results. And so my hope is that the president will trust the decisions made at the local level more than what typically happens from D.C., and try to envision what the world will look like in 2030, not what the world looked like in 1980.
Do you miss politics?
That’s a great question. I don’t want to sound like a politician cause I’m not, but the answer is yes and no. I miss the challenges, particularly in emergencies. I miss being able to serve when people really need the help of the government. I don’t miss the politics of politics, which is dangerously poisonous right now.
I’m totally blessed in life. I have five grandchildren, all close to perfection, as you can imagine. My wife and I are about ready to celebrate our 47th year of marriage. Wow. My reform education foundation is flourishing. My business is flourishing. My health is great. I don’t miss politics. I worry about our country a lot. And I hope our politics do change for the better — where we’re more loving, more conciliatory, and don’t think people who disagree with us are our enemies.