Liberal Democrat Michelle Rhee and conservative Republican Jeb Bush shared a stage at the RNC in Tampa today and suggested that despite the hyper partisanship on so many issues, there is increasingly common ground when it comes to education reform.
“This is a chance for a Switzerland,” said Bush, the Republican Party’s standard bearer on education, referring to that country’s policy of neutrality in wars.
Bush, who is giving a prime time speech at the RNC Thursday, said Mitt Romney will be a “very good president on education.” But he also praised President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on their education initiatives, including Race to the Top. “This will be very heretic but I’m getting used to being heretical,” Bush said. “The president by picking Arne Duncan did a good thing for the country.”
Rhee, the former Washington D.C. education chancellor who now heads the advocacy group StudentsFirst, said it’s important to continue building bipartisan bridges to counter critics who will continue to try and sow division. “We have to fight really hard against that polarization,” she said.
Comments from the pair came after StudentsFirst sponsored a special screening of “Won’t Back Down,” the soon-to-be-released Hollywood movie about a mother and a teacher who use a parent-trigger-type law to turn around a struggling, inner-city school. They spoke before hundreds at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts along with the film director, Daniel Barnz, producer Mark Johnson and the moderator, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. (Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also scheduled to be part of the panel, but could not make it because of the weather.)
Barnz and Brown also contributed to the nonpartisan atmosphere.
“This is not a partisan concern, this is an American concern,” Brown said after noting America’s high dropout rate and middling academic performance among other industrialized nations.
Said Barnz: “The movie makes an appeal for a kind of centrism … What I’d really like to see happen with the movie is to kind of strike a middle road.”
Rhee recalled that in D.C., former Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, put all of his political capital into backing her hard-charging plans to address low-performing teachers and schools. Fenty lost re-election, and Rhee resigned. Among the lessons learned, she said: critics were organized and able to quickly mobilize while “there was no equivalent political network on the education reform side.”
Both Bush and Rhee offered strong support for expanding school choice. With Bush, that’s no surprise given his longtime backing of private school vouchers, tax credit scholarships and charter schools. But Rhee is better known for tackling reforms like teacher tenure and evaluations.
She said both she and Mayor Fenty, as Democrats, initially struggled with accepting the D.C. voucher program. But she had a change of heart after listening to parents whose children didn’t win lotteries to attend higher-performing schools outside of their neighborhoods.
“These families would come to me and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ “ she said. “I felt like it was wrong to say to this mother, ‘I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to suck it up while I fix the system.’ “
Despite all the nice talk, Bush bowed up a couple of times. He referred to alleged union intimidation of parents in California’s parent trigger battles and said, “How do you sing Kumbaya with people who are thugs?”
He also recounted the experience of one of his sons, who was a public school teacher in South Florida when Bush ran for governor in 1998. According to Bush, the school’s union rep harassed his son, which prompted Bush to visit the school, seek out the “god danged” rep and shake his hand without quickly letting go. “Then I whispered into his ear,” Bush said, to rising laughter from the audience, “something I cannot repeat.”