After a bruising defeat in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Jeb Bush approached a well-known civil rights leader in Miami with an ambitious plan.
He wanted to open an experimental "charter" school in Liberty City, one of the nation’s poorest communities. And he wanted T. Willard Fair to help.
Fair, the president of the Miami Urban League, was skeptical. Some members of his inner circle suggested Bush was using him for political gain.
The two men met in Miami. Fair assumed it would be nothing more than a photo-op. But it ended up being a 90-minute discussion on the state of Florida’s schools.
"Jeb was genuine," Fair recalled. "You can’t fool me. I’m going to test you too many times."
Two years later, in the summer of 1996, a group of 60 students, donning crisp red uniforms, entered the new Liberty City Charter School. It was the state’s first charter school, and it paved the way for hundreds of others.
There’s no doubt that the experience in building the charter school helped Bush politically, softening his image in advance of his successful 1998 gubernatorial race. But it also sparked a deep interest in education policy that would define his legacy, both as Florida’s governor and later as a leader in the national education reform movement.
"It opened his eyes to aspects of urban issues that he hadn’t thought about before,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor and author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.
As Bush defines himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, the story of the Liberty City Charter School is certain to draw attention. It’s a double-edged sword for Bush. Supporters can point to the school’s academic success in boasting Bush’s leadership in education. At the same time, opponents can point to the financial troubles that led to its closing in 2008 as evidence of Bush’s failed education agenda.