Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defended new uniform achievement standards for students around the nation Friday while calling for states to expand school-choice initiatives through more online classrooms.
Bush outlined his education priorities to mixed reviews from conservative lawmakers and business executives attending a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a key behind-the-scenes policy resource for many Republican-led Legislatures.
He said sweeping education changes are needed because the U.S. "has become a global leader in education spending while also becoming a global lagger in math and science."
The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found that while U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders in 2011 scored better in math and science than children in many countries, they were behind students in nations such as South Korea, Japan and Finland.
Bush is among the front-running contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But he made no mention Friday of whether he aspires to follow his father and brother to the White House, despite an introduction from an Iowa lawmaker who publicly referenced his potential campaign.
Republican lawmakers around the nation are split over new Common Core standards being implemented in many states that set uniform benchmarks for reading, writing and math. The standards are a result of an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The American Legislative Exchange Council has remained neutral.
Bush said the common standards are a good way of raising expectations for students, many of whom, he said, are not currently ready for college or careers.
"There will be a painful adjustment period as students adapt to these new standards," Bush said. "It will create a big stink, trust me. But I think that stink is worth having today rather than having dreams unfulfilled over the next generation."
Some opponents of the Common Core standards don't like the national approach, raising concerns similar to those voiced against the federal No Child Left Behind education law enacted under former President George W. Bush.
"I'm not for Common Core at all. I believe education belongs at the local level," Missouri state Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, said in an interview after Jeb Bush's speech. "To me, it's kind of setting up standards that are dumbing down what our students need to study."
Lawmakers in Indiana have put the implementation of Common Core standards on hold while re-evaluating whether to participate.
"I think it opens the door to federally controlled state curriculum," said Indiana Rep. Tim Wescoe, R-Elkhart.
Bush called for state policies holding back third graders who cannot read well and ending tenure systems that employ and pay teachers based on experience rather than student performance. He called for more states to adopt an A-F grading scale for schools based on their student achievement — a provision contained in a 1999 Florida education law that he enacted that is embraced as a model bill by ALEC.
Bush also said parents should have more options to enroll children in digital classrooms.
"We need to make education relevant to 21st century kids, and that means communicating with them on their terms, as digital natives," Bush said.
That proposal appeared to be warmly embraced at the ALEC conference, which hosted a seminar on the merits of virtual schools that enroll students statewide instead of only from particular geographic districts. Among the panelists was Tom Vander Ark, a former public school superintendent in Washington state who is CEO of the digital-learning advocacy group Getting Smart.
"School districts may have been good at one point in American history, but they have really in some respects outlived their useful purpose," Vander Ark said.