Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has picked a fight with teachers' unions about the state of the public school system, launching a new broadside that could delight the GOP's conservative base in advance of the 2016 presidential election.
The recent tensions broke out last week after Bush delivered a speech at the annual conference of his educational think tank, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, The Wall Street Journal
In a speech, Bush referred to public school systems as "13,000 government-run unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators, and struggling students in a system nobody can escape."
The comments sparked anger from the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten, shot back saying, "He says he wants to break up so-called 'monopolies' of public education, forgetting that public education is a public good, a moral imperative, and a constitutional mandate in many of the country's states, including Florida," the Journal reported.
Bush's recent comments could curry favor with the conservative base in advance of a presidential bid, potentially countering their dislike of his positions on other issues, such as his support for the Common Core standards and immigration reform.
"Jeb Bush has taken on big issues like education reform that have put him at odds with teachers unions on a fairly regular basis, and I think it will be important for people to be reminded of that record if he enters the presidential race," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told the Journal.
The latest clash resurrects tensions from 1999-2006, his years as governor of Florida. Bush repeatedly fought with unions on a range of issues, including linking teacher pay and job security to test results, awarding grades to schools based on their test scores, expanding charter schools, and giving private school vouchers to students struggling in public schools.
Since leaving office, he has become an advocate for those policies through his foundation.
Meanwhile, his voucher policy is being challenged in court by the teachers unions, which say the program unlawfully diverts money from public schools to religious institutions.
Bush has also tried to be more conciliatory toward conservatives who oppose his position on the Common Core.
He said Thursday, in his first major speech since the midterm elections, that states and local communities should have the flexibility to design their own programs with federal dollars, but that the Common Core should represent new "minimum standards"
for America's classrooms.
"I respect those who have weighed in on all sides of this issue. Nobody in this debate has a bad motive," he said.
Weingarten criticized the remarks, according to the Journal, saying, "It's interesting that [Bush] maintains respect for those in his party who disagree with him, while continuously disrespecting the professionals working hard to implement these standards in classrooms across the country."
A spokeswoman for Bush, Jaryn Emhof, characterized the criticism as "Just another attack from an entrenched education establishment more concerned about protecting the status quo than providing parents and students with quality education options."
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