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Why Jeb Bush could struggle to run on his biggest accomplishment

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When George W. Bush first ran for president, he touted his education reform record as governor among his main accomplishments. Sixteen years later, his brother Jeb Bush is doing the same.

"Let's close the opportunity gap, and that starts with doing everything we can to give every child, from every neighborhood, a great education," Jeb said in a recent campaign-style speech. "This won't happen overnight — trust me, I know. But I also know it works."

Jeb Bush's education credentials are arguably more impressive than his older brother's. But he faces a tougher challenge than George W. Bush did in 2000. Jeb's signature reforms depended on an active state role in testing students and grading schools. But the Republican Party has grown far more skeptical of taking this approach to the national level than when the elder Bush brother ran for president.

A prime example is Common Core, national academic standards that Jeb Bush supports but many conservative Republicans dislike. And the rest of Bush's education reform legacy could prove tricky to translate nationally as well.

George W. Bush simply copied his Texas reforms into his presidential platform, which later became No Child Left Behind, a landmark education law that aimed to improve the nation's schools, particularly for poor and minority children. But Jeb can't just hold up what he did in Florida as a model for the federal government. He needs to translate his education record in a way that is more palatable to conservative voters who are more skeptical than ever about government getting too involved in schools.

"If you don’t brag about what you've done, people say, 'Why are you running for president?'" said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "If you do brag about what you’ve done, Republican voters say, 'Are you promising you’re going to go do this in Washington?'

Is education Jeb Bush's Romneycare?

Mitt Romney

Romney campaigning in 2012. (David Greedy/Getty Images)

Bush's dilemma is a recurring one for Republican governors running on state-level accomplishments. Mitt Romney, for example, had to figure out how to tout his Massachusetts health care reforms while campaigning against Obamacare for taking the same ideas to the national level. He failed.

Already there are some indications of how Bush might position himself on education if he gets into the race. His positioning puts him to the left of congressional Republicansmany of whom want the federal government out of education entirely. But it puts him to the right of his brother's vision of a federal government that required states to test students, defined what it meant to make academic progress, and specified how schools should be punished if students weren't progressing.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit Bush founded, recently released principles for what the overhaul to No Child Left Behind should do. That's considered the best indication so far of Bush's national education reform ideas.

Those principles favor annual standardized testing and a requirement that states do something about their lowest-performing schools. But overall, they would allow states more flexibility than No Child Left Behind did.

"A lot of people are assuming he would try to replicate Florida's program nationally," said Andy Smarick, who worked on education policy for the George W. Bush administration, worked in Chris Christie's New Jersey Education Department, and is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. "Instead, what he could do is take the Florida philosophy — let’s empower governors to do bold things in their states and get out of the way."

How George W. Bush overcame Republican skepticism

Bush at NCLB signing (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)

The No Child Left Behind signing in 2002. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)

Jeb Bush is specifically looking to take credit for a mix of accomplishments. As Florida governor, he supported a voucher program likely to be popular among conservatives, though parts of it were later thrown out in court.

He also fought for annual standardized testing, with schools graded based on their students' results. And Bush also frequently talks about his work to end social promotion — holding students back in third grade if they didn't get high enough scores on a standardized reading test.

Among Republican voters, "there’s this notion that these seem like perfectly fine ideas, but we’re a little nervous about you going to Washington to do them," Hess said. "Because it sounds like you want to have bureaucrats in the US Education Department grade schools and promote students."

This skepticism isn't new. When George W. Bush started running for president, eliminating the federal Education Department entirely was still a part of the Republican platform. Bush's plans for Texas-style education reform were seen as a massive expansion of the federal role in public schools — which they were, for better or worse.

But aside from a skirmish over the party platform, those criticisms weren't a big feature of the GOP primaries. Bush enjoyed the support of the party early. His major challenger, John McCain, was generally to his left, and didn't challenge Bush on education policy. The result was that Bush didn't really have to worry about making his education policies palatable to conservative Republican voters.

"It was really a general election issue for George W. Bush, a way to illustrate that he was a different type of Republican — a compassionate conservative," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank.

Why 2016 is not 2000

Scott Walker teachers unions

Scott Walker's education record includes battles with teachers unions. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News)

Education remains a powerfully symbolic issue for Republican candidates, who use it to demonstrate a commitment to economic opportunity. But Jeb Bush is likely to face much more skepticism on his approach to the issue than his brother did.

So far, most of the criticism focuses on Common Core, shared national academic standards that Bush supports. Florida adopted the measure after Jeb Bush left office, but he's been one of the remaining vocal supporters of the standards in the Republican party.

Common Core aside, though, the Republican field includes a range of experiences and ideas on education reform — meaning that even though education policy might not swing many votes, it's likely to get airtime in the debates because it highlights some significant differences among candidates.

Bush has a tough needle to thread because his testing and accountability policies are more contentious at the federal level than some of his competitors'. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker can point to tough battles with teachers' unions and higher education, as well as an expansion of school voucher programs. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal expanded vouchers and is fighting Common Core. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a 2012 presidential debate, named the Education Department as one of three Cabinet-level agencies he'd like to eliminate (he forgot the third).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie teamed up with now-Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, to promote education reform in Newark. He also signed a bill toughening the path to tenure and supported a law tying teachers' evaluations to students' test scores, a policy the Obama administration has pushed. Many conservative education policy experts don't think the federal government should be involved in forcing states to build those systems. But Christie hasn't talked much about that law, and on education he's perhaps best known for yelling at teachers, which isn't likely to translate well on the national stage.

And candidates who didn't serve as state executives — Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul among them — can stake out any positions they want on education or avoid the matter entirely. Rubio has focused on higher education reform. And Paul wants the federal government out entirely.

The diversity of opinions on education means that "it’s not going to be as easy [for Jeb] as it was for his brother" to push education reform, Petrilli said. And it means we're likely to hear more, not less, about Florida's reforms and how they would play at the national level before the primary is over.

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