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74 Interview — Jeb Bush: Evolution of Republican Party ‘a Mess’; Americans Must Stop ‘Obsession About Washington, D.C.,’ and Look Toward States to Lead Through Coronavirus Crisis

By Andrew Rotherham and Emmeline Zhao | May 27, 2020

Jeb Bush was a widely regarded governor of Florida for eight years, is a successful businessman, was a 2016 presidential candidate and remains one of the most influential voices in education more than a decade after leaving office.

Bush now spends his time on advocacy efforts and the nonprofit ExcelinEd, which he founded and chairs. His experience, past and present, places him in a unique position to offer insights and speak hard truths about education in America. That’s why we wanted to hear what he had to say about his observations and advice for ensuring quality learning through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Earlier this month, we sat down with him via videoconference to chat about what governing during hurricanes teaches you about crises like this, why Miami-Dade County Public Schools is succeeding where other districts are struggling, why he wants to see more discussion of successes in education and why he’s fundamentally optimistic about our chances as Americans. Bush, who spoke to us from his home in Florida, also handicaps the 2020 election and offers some quarantine reading recommendations. A few of the highlights:

Here’s Bush in his own words. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Since the coronavirus pandemic really started unfolding in earnest in March for schools, what are you seeing that’s most heartening to you?

The most disappointing thing would be that there are some school districts that are resourced enough to provide education but said that if they can’t provide it to everyone, they’re not going to provide it to anyone. And that’s deeply disappointing because that’s deeply pessimistic. I think in a crisis, you want people to rise up and to think differently, and to take it as an opportunity to be better.

What’s encouraging is, many school districts have done just that. I’m proud to be a resident of Miami-Dade County, where the fourth-largest school district in the United States had trained for going online to be able to provide education. That’s because we get hurricanes here, that’s one of the reasons why they trained for it. They provided access to devices and, by and large, the great majority and a great majority of students are accessing education. Teachers have been trained on it. Students with special needs have been given the attention. And that’s the kind of response that we’d like to see across the board.

I don’t think people down here thought that there was going to be a pandemic that would quarantine the entire country. But we do have natural disasters, and we train for that. And we’re focused on being able to take care of people after a storm. So, I think there was a built-in advantage there, but it also relates to principled leadership.

The superintendent here is a true leader, and he’s been there for a while. So he is thinking longer-term. And the per-student funding in Dade County is lower than the average in the country. So, it’s not a question of resources. It’s a question of leadership and training. And because of that, I think they’ve done a pretty good job.

As you mentioned, districts have said they can’t serve all kids. How should we be thinking about special education at a time like this?

I would think creatively, for sure. There ought to be a customized strategy for each child in America. I would start with that. I’d turn the system on its head and think about it from the perspective of the student. And if you did that, your IEP is the individual education plans. It would include what happens when there’s a disruption like this going forward.

I don’t blame anybody for not anticipating this incredible crisis. If you had that kind of clairvoyant vision, then God bless you for doing it. But I think the lessons need to be learned. And part of that would be, “OK, now that we’ve seen this and it’s likely to come back in the fall, and it’s likely that we’re going to have to have split scheduling of some kind. It could be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.” I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. It would be different in every district; we need to make sure that the kids with special needs have the attention that they deserve.

The great thing about our country, in many ways, and everybody wants a national solution to everything, I like the bottom-up approach. As long as we are recording lessons learned here, I think there’s going to be all sorts of really exciting innovations that take place that will long last, go way beyond the pandemic to help education across the board.

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What’s your take on the administration’s response so far on education and generally?

Well, education, they play a completely supportive role. These decisions about how to teach, how to keep schools open, when they’re going to open, the form in which they open, those should be decided in concert with local school districts and state governments. The governor has this emergency power, and you can see how governors are very effective. They’re all in. They’re showing the kind of servant leadership that you would expect.

So, again, I don’t think we need to over-rely on Washington. It’s great to have the resources because only the federal government, with its massive power to print money, can deal with some of these significant financial challenges that districts across the country will have. But let’s let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s try innovative approaches across the board. What might work in Miami-Dade County is not going to work in rural Virginia, for example.

There will be a great repository of ideas, some of which will work and some of which won’t, that will come out of that. For some reason, we’re in this era where everybody is focused on D.C. They obsess about the White House. They obsess about Trump. They obsess about the president more than anything else. And I don’t think that serves us well in this kind of challenge.

School accountability and testing has been paused this year. There are already murmurs about efforts to pause testing next year. How should policymakers be thinking about this and juggling the various pressures on them?

We dealt with a bunch of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, Hurricane Charley wiped out Southwest Florida. It was a Category 4 storm. Charlotte County, DeSoto County, these counties that were dramatically impacted, they didn’t have classes for at least three months. They came back, and of course the call was, “It’s not fair. We shouldn’t have accountability. We shouldn’t have the test. Our kids are stressed out.” And I said, “No, I think we need to have accountability. I think children will rise to the challenge, and I know teachers will as well.”

And interestingly, the districts most impacted by the storm were the ones that had the best gains based on our accountability system. If you think about it, you can either get into a fetal position after a major crisis like this or you can say, “We’re going to fix this. We’re going to do something about this. We’re going to take advantage of this.” And I think public leaders need to be less pessimistic, more optimistic, more inspiring, more hopeful.

So, I would hope that accountability stays. Ultimately, it’d be wonderful to move to a system where the learning is blended, where time is the variable and learning is the constant, where you’re learning at home and in the classroom, and where teachers are the coaches of student learning, and where students are more responsible for their own learning.

In that environment, you would have a very different kind of assessment model and accountability. But it would be a far better one because you wouldn’t push kids along that hadn’t mastered the material and excuse it away for life circumstances. And you wouldn’t hold kids back that could learn faster. So, maybe out of this devastating situation that is so impactful for so many people, maybe we’ll start thinking freshly about how we actually organize schools in general.

Are there other lessons from governing a state that gets more than its share of natural disasters and unexpected shutdowns of public services that would inform what’s happening now?

Lessons of training are important. We’re going to go into a fall with lots of uncertainty. Teachers are being asked to teach in different ways now. There could be an outbreak, as it normally is the case with these viruses. And how do you respond to that? You need to be thinking about that, both community leaders as well as, obviously, school leaders. And the lesson is that you train for this.

When I was governor, my last year, we had a day-long training session with some guy from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. We coordinated with the mayor, I believe, of Miami-Dade County. And [the premise of the training was that there] was a dirty bomb that hit the Port of Miami and the southeasterly winds hit downtown Miami. At the same time, terrorists injecting themselves with smallpox went on an Air France plane from Paris to Orlando and went to Disney. So, yeah, we responded to that.

Now, we thankfully haven’t had that, but that kind of training, I can guarantee you, makes a huge difference when you’re confronted with these kinds of challenges. Schools need to do a lot more of that, and teachers need to receive more training on the kind of teaching that is essential when there’s not 20 kids in front of you in a classroom. So, teacher development days off to be able to train for the unforeseen, I think, is really important going forward.

A lot of students are experiencing, for the first time, a competency-based approach. They’re doing work at home. When it’s done, they’re done. They have more freedom over their schedules. Do you think that there’s going to be more of an appetite for this because we’re suddenly having an unexpected national experiment with it?

I do. The kids that have been pushed along and haven’t mastered the material will realize that it’s better to master it. And the kids that are being held back — when my granddaughter goes to school, she’s a high-achieving kid, and she has to wait 20 minutes for everybody else, when it’s a regular classroom situation, to master that material. I’m happy that there’s a focus on every child in that classroom. But wouldn’t it be better to allow little Georgia to accelerate her learning?

So, I think there will be a catalyst for new thinking in that regard, and that would be awesome. If 25 percent of all juniors are capable of taking college-level work, and low single digits do, we’re missing an opportunity for saving a bunch of money, accelerating the purposefulness of life, dealing with the chance for people to dream big dreams. And equally important, we’re going to make sure that struggling readers and kids that lag behind, for all sorts of reasons, master the material.

Some parents are getting pretty alarmed at the quality of work that they’re seeing, now that they’re more dialed in to their children’s work than ever. What do you think the effect is going to be of that?

When you empower parents with information, now, this information is actually more powerful than a set of data points, right? This is real life, reality thrust into their lives about how students are learning, how teachers are teaching. And parental engagement with information is really going to matter. I think that’s one of the by-products of this, is that you’re going to see more parent empowerment because they’ve actually lived it down for three months.

And what would be helpful, I think, is to show best practices across the country because there are some extraordinary examples of learning. And not just talk about the failures, because the press mostly has been focusing on the failures of districts to provide access to education, or basically dialed-in learning. And that’s not an accurate representation of what’s going on.

There may be examples of it, but there’s some awesome examples as well. And one of the things I always am frustrated about education is, we don’t share the successes enough. And then they don’t replicate fast enough to be able to make a difference in the lives of students. Hopefully, this will change with the coronavirus.

Florida seems like it’s going to be in play, as it is every cycle. Joe Biden’s numbers look surprisingly strong there, and it seems President Donald Trump is struggling among seniors. But it’s also May in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis. How do you handicap the race?

I think it’s incomplete if you’re going to give a grade on where we are, because there’s so many variables that play out. Is it a V-shape or a U-shape recovery, or no recovery at all? Do we accelerate the testing and tracing, or do we stay where we are now? Is there hope for a vaccine early next year? All these things will change the psyche of the electorate. Florida is always going to be in play, for sure. And the president has seen his support erode a bit.

But all the battleground states, the margins of error are close enough to suggest that this has got a long way to go. Unfortunately, it’s going to be an ugly election. I don’t think we’re going to have our hopes lifted up, or I think we’re going to be dealing more with the people preying on our fears and our angst, rather than restoring a sense of unity and asking us to look over the horizon to see a better day. I wish we could get back to those politics, particularly, on a national crisis.

When it comes to education, what would your advice be to a politician who wants to succeed with Florida voters?

For a presidential race, I would say, be a partner to support the policies of the state, whether it’s Florida or any other state. There’s a broad consensus in California that Californians know how to do this better. And in Florida, we’re proud that we think we can do it better. Be supportive and have high expectations for every child.

There’s an opportunity here with these stimulus packages to be able to deal with some of the gaps that exist. The digital divide is one of those that should be eradicated out of this. There’s all sorts of other benefits beyond education, but education, primarily, that would be a worthy aspiration. And only the federal government could do that in partnership with the states.

This evolution of the Republican Party in the era of Trump: What does it mean for education and for younger Republicans?

It’s a mess. There’s no single organizing principle of the Republican Party and certainly of the conservative cause. And it’s partially because of the populism and the emphasis on personality, in the absence of conservative principles that undergird it. So, that will be a fight for a later day. In the interim, I think the battle lines will be set in a fashion that’s pretty easy to believe.

First of all, there are maybe eight states that matter. And inside the electorate of those eight states, there’s probably two subgroups that really matter: less-educated white women who have left the Democratic Party and been supportive, fairly loyal to President Trump, and now have moved away a little bit based on the polling in these swing states; and educated white men who have been supportive of the president, they’re also waning a bit.

So, those two groups, I think, decide the election in six states. The amount of attention with microtargeting and the customization of messaging that exists now that those poor people are going to get, I wouldn’t want to be part of that subgroup. They’re going to be hounded into, but that’s how our elections have gotten. It’s very different than it was just a decade ago. And it’s hard to tell how that plays out because there’s cultural issues, social issues, certainly economic issues, all of which is a cocktail of uncertainty, for sure.

You mentioned before that historically, faith revival, war or national crisis shakes us out of a political standoff. But we’re in a national crisis now and it hasn’t necessarily brought us together. How do we break this fever? 

I’d say one thing is we need to change our focus, obsession about Washington, D.C. Look at almost every state — the governors have gone from wherever they were, typically, 50 percent approval ratings, around there, to 70 percent, in some cases 80 percent.

You see [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo, who is not the most likable guy — at least I never thought he was like a warm and fuzzy dude — but he is fact-based, he’s empathetic, he’s using humor, but he’s tough and he’s serious. He’s showing that he has a servant’s heart. He may be the most political guy on the planet, but his messaging is very unpolitical.

And that’s the case with [Ohio Gov. Mike] DeWine. [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis is just all in on this stuff. Every day he is in another place talking about how we gradually reopen. Everybody’s got a different style, but they’re all proving that we could get back to some unity on things that really matter.

But we obsess about the food fight in Congress and the administration. We watch what the president says. We don’t watch, necessarily, what he and his administration do. And I don’t know. I don’t know how you break through that, but that’s not normal. It’s not rational either. We overemphasize D.C., and so we’re missing some of the positive effects of responding to this crisis in a very meaningful and helpful way. And I think it could be sustaining over a long haul.

How can governors gain the political courage to put politics aside and lead through this crisis?

I think governors in a crisis particularly have to step up. The beauty of this is, the dirty little secret is that, when you put aside all the partisanship and you don’t read the polls, and you don’t say, “How can I look better than the guy who’s my opponent,” you actually become more popular. In a time of a crisis, people don’t want to hear all that. They don’t have anything to do with it.

So, what appears to be courageous is actually the right thing to do, first and foremost, but it’s also good politics. Bad politics is when it’s about you and “Oh my god, it’s someone else’s fault.” No one wants to hear that. They want to know, “When can I go back to work?” “How are my children going to go to school?” “Am I safe?” “My mother-in-law, will she ever be able to get out of an assisted living facility?” These are the questions people are asking about that now. “Will I have a job?” And they don’t want to hear all the tick-tock nonsense of politics.

So, it really isn’t courageous to do the right thing. It shouldn’t be courageous. It’s called doing the right thing. And most people watch all this political stuff with their peripheral vision. They’re not obsessed about the governor’s five-point plan to do whatever it is that they’re planning to do. But when there’s a crisis, they watch very carefully, and they’re looking for someone they can trust. They’re looking for a truth teller. They’re looking for someone that gives it to them straight and then offers a little bit of hope and has some empathy for the plight that they’re in.

You, along with a select handful of other governors, like Jim Hunt, Bill Clinton, Buddy Roemer, have been known as education governors. What needs to be on a governor’s platform now to ensure that kids are prepared for the workforce and join the ranks of education governors?

Instead of saying, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god, the end is near. I got a huge budget deficit. I just got to go lobby Congress to get as much money as I can” — I’m not saying that that’s not an important thing; it certainly is to open up the doors for the schools — but rather than go into the fetal position and say, “This is not fair. I don’t have any money,” you have the chance as a governor to say, “If we weren’t doing it this way, how would we do it?” And then, figure out a way, out of necessity, to move towards that.

You’ve mentioned the need for a national strategy. How do governors or state leaders come together outside of Washington to create this national strategy?

Well, in a large state like Florida, you could create a strategy to make sure that there’s access for education in every home, for every child. It would be helpful if the E-Rate monies would be available to make that happen. Most of the E-Rate monies go to wiring schools, rather than connecting schools with families. So, that would require a change in law in Washington, but you could create a strategy that brought philanthropy, brought private-sector support, the technology budgets that go in the funding formula to school districts.

You could garner support for school districts to spend a year or two, whatever time it took, to divert the monies that right now are basically vendor-driven, technological, all sorts of gadgets and groovy things and services. There’s a whole array of things that districts do. You could create a national strategy by doing it with the mega-states; even if it’s just the state of Florida or state of California, that would be meaningful. Big states can change the dynamic of national policy, for sure.

Tell us about the collaboration between the Florida Virtual School and Alaska Virtual School, and how that is particularly relevant now?

The commissioner of education came down to visit, which I was flattered that he did, it was a long way to talk about their challenges. Alaska has some really unique education challenges — remote school districts, dispersed student populations.

There were certain courses that couldn’t be delivered, as teachers weren’t prepared to do it. So, this was a collaboration to do teacher development as well as direct content taught by Florida Virtual School teachers into Alaska schools. A little controversial because everybody thinks that the internet should have a boundary just like all state boundaries, but it’s irrelevant these days.

This was pre-pandemic. So, the virus arises, and thankfully, it hasn’t had a big impact in Alaska yet. And they were challenged on a good day, given the unique nature of Alaska.

It became more imperative to identify ways to distribute learning into people’s homes. So, Florida Virtual School signed an agreement. I don’t know how long lasting it would be, but it was nice to see. And it was smart of Alaska to do that because of the virtual schools that exist.

You read widely. What are some books that you think everyone in education would do well to read?

There are two books that have had a big impact on me in the last six months. One is The Coddling of the American Mind, which [discusses why] it’s important that we create resiliency for the next generation. They shouldn’t be coddled. It’s kind of weird to say this in the midst of a deadly pandemic, but this is the safest time for children to grow up, putting aside this temporary challenge that’s horrific. And we coddle them. The book, I think, makes a pretty compelling case.

And the other is a similar kind of book, called Range, that deals with: How do you want your children to grow up? Do you want them to become specialists? They tell the story to kick off with Tiger Woods at the age of 3. He was hitting the golf ball with Johnny Carson. He’s an incredible athlete. But Roger Federer quit tennis, played soccer, went back to tennis, played other sports, and is the [greatest of all time] of tennis.

I’m reading Amanda Ripley’s latest book, which is called The Unthinkable. It’s perfect for the time we’re in. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s really well written and it deals with disasters and how we respond to them and the psychology behind it. It’s a fascinating book.

Through this crisis, if we get education right, what does it look like? If we don’t get it right, what is the worst-case scenario for our kids?

If we don’t get it right, we’ll end up doing the same thing that we’ve been doing, which will mean that we’ll have huge learning gaps between those that are gaining the power of knowledge and those that are being left behind.

If we do get it right, we will have a system that is student-centered, harnessing technology, where students reach their God-given potential each and every year, and where kids that can take college credit in high school do so, and kids that are struggling readers learn how to read and understand math. We move away from this remediation model to a model where every young person is capable of gaining a career or going to college.

How optimistic are you that we can get it right?

I’m optimistic so long as we restore this American value of exceptionalism where we embrace the unknown, where we’re optimistic about the future, and where we let thousands of different variations of improvement happen, rather than march lockstep in line and be told what to do.

America is not a well-organized place, but it’s the greatest, most creative country in the world. And if we take advantage of this crisis in that fashion, I’m really optimistic.

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