MIAMI (AP) — Joining forces with the Bush political family, President Barack Obama on Friday tried to lift up his education agenda in politically vital Florida, saying his government is determined to help the nation's worst performing schools rebound. Said Obama: "I am not willing to give up on any school in America."
Obama's stop at an improving high school offered the bipartisan imagery he intended: the president on stage and in step with Jeb Bush, the popular ex-governor of Florida. Obama praised Bush as “someone who championed reform when he was in office, someone who is now championing reform as a private citizen.”
Bush is also the brother of former President George W. Bush — the man Obama succeeded in the White House after long assailing his record on the campaign trail.
"I do not accept failure here in America," Obama said, with Jeb Bush right over his shoulder, during a speech at Miami Central Senior High School.
"I believe the status quo is unacceptable. It is time to change it," Obama said. "And it's time to come together, just like Jeb and I are doing today, coming from different parties. But we come together not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans, to lift up all of our schools."
Obama's bipartisan overture comes as the president and Democrats are in the midst of a partisan standoff with Republicans over budget cuts. Obama he will need at least some GOP support if he's to resolve that divide and pass any substantial legislation, including education reform, in the second half of his term.
Obama's education agenda is built around themes of empowering teachers, demanding accountability, enticing states to raise their academic standards and trying to get schools have cultures of high expectations. On the education front, he shares much in common with Jeb Bush, a champion of education reform.
Obama's trip, though, had partisan intentions, too.
He was headlining two fundraisers to raise an estimated total of $1 million for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Jeb Bush, often pressed about his own presidential ambitions, has ruled out running in 2012, when the eventual GOP nominee will presumably face Obama. But he has not eliminated the chance of running for president in 2016. His elder brother George served as the nation's president for eight years preceding Obama.
Jeb Bush introduced Obama by agreeing with him that education should not divide leaders along party lines. The two enjoyed a handshake as Obama took over.
The president then poked some fun at the political history of Jeb Bush, who is both the son and the brother of presidents named George Bush.
"Aside from being a former governor of this great state, Jeb of course is best known as being the brother of Marvin Bush," Obama said, to some laughter and surprise from his audience. Marvin is one of Jeb Bush's far less famous siblings.
Obama looked over at the former governor and smiled about his own joke. "The truth is," the president added, "I've gotten to know Jeb because his family exemplifies public service, and we are so grateful to him for the work that he's doing on behalf of education."
Obama has called for fresh spending on education in the 2012 budget he unveiled last month, saying that improving America's schools isn't an area where the government can cut back, even as Congress looks for ways to reduce spending and bring down the nation's mounting deficit.
The Obama administration is trying to turn around the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing public schools with a nearly $4 billion infusion to the School Improvement Grant program. Schools awarded grants must choose one of four intervention models: Closure; reopening as a charter; replacing the principal and a majority of the staff; and hiring a new principal while providing further teacher development and learning time.
The president said he would be traveling the country throughout March to talk to parents, students and teachers about his vision for educational change. For his first setting, he chose Miami Central Senior High School, which was beset by problems and labeled a failure for years before starting to transform its ways.
"You came together to turn this school around, and I think the rest of us can learn something from that," Obama said.
Miami Central is one of hundreds of low-performing schools across the nation that have received federal turnaround money.
Obama told the high school students that companies hire where the talent is and that the single most important thing businesses are looking for are skilled, educated workers. A good education equals a good job, Obama said, and warned his audience: "You can't even think about dropping out."
Earlier at the school, Obama and Bush toured a classroom where students built robots. Several of the students said they wanted to be engineers, to which Obama said: "I can say this because I'm a lawyer: We need more engineers. Fewer lawyers and investment bankers and more engineers."
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