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Bush gets real with Gaetz on education reform, coy on future

Before a meeting with Senate President Don Gaetz on Thursday, former Gov. Jeb Bush said he believed the parent trigger bill introduced this week would pass.

"As I understand what the law is, it’s a pretty simple law,” Bush said. “If you’re in a failing school, parents oughta have the ability, if they want to, to have a say, simply a say, in providing advice on what structure a failing school should take. That doesn’t say they can do like in California where they can convert a charter school or do something else, it simply says parents’ voice matters. If that’s a radical idea in America today, then we’re in a heap of trouble.”

A bill filed this week by Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland, would allow parents at failing schools to choose a strategy to turnaround a school via a petition. One option could allow the school to be converted to a charter school. A similar bill was defeated last year, but Bush said he thinks this year it will pass. 

Earlier on Thursday, Bush met with House Republicans and Speaker Will Weatherford. Reporters didn’t speak to him at that event, and were only able to ask a couple of questions before his meeting with Gaetz.

Bush hasn’t visited the Capitol since 2010, so he was asked why he was meeting with lawmakers. Bush said as the head of the non-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education, he was there to “say hello to friends and advance the cause of rising student achievement.”

Gaetz met with Bush for more than 20 minutes – twice as long as he met with Weatherford – and discussed more education topics, Gaetz said after the meeting. Like he did after meeting with House Republicans, Bush left by exiting through a door where there were no reporters.

Gaetz said he and Bush first got to know each other in the early 1990s. Gaetz was considering a run for school board in Okaloosa County and his friend, Joe Scarborough, asked him to meet Bush.

“And so the three of us sat in this empty restaurant for about two hours while Jeb Bush gave me all these reasons to run for the school board,” Gaetz said. “We’ve been good friends ever since.”

During Thursday's meeting, Gaetz told his good friend that a flurry of reforms (Common Core national standards, teacher evaluations tied to pay, end-of-course exams for the FCAT) were proving difficult to implement.

“We have a lot of reform that had kind of shot off like rockets,” Gaetz said. “All of that was coming down now from the sky, in the same place at the same time. And I shared with him my concern that the Department of Education had not done a good job in implementing those reforms.”

He said Bush, who helped push for much of that reform, wasn’t having it.

“He said, ‘Well, you need leadership,’” Gaetz said. “He turned and looked at me like, ‘Gaetz, do your job.”

Meanwhile, Gaetz fanned speculation that Bush would run for president in 2016.

“I asked him when the bus is leaving for Iowa and that I wanted to be on the bus,” Gaetz said. “He laughed. But he didn’t say no.”