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On the first post-debate flagship podcast, Peter and Rob proclaimed Jeb Bush’s record as governor of Florida as “indisputably conservative.” Conservative has two meanings. On the one hand, it means sticking to established and safe principles, avoiding unnecessary risk, and — essentially — “being responsible.” Most the elements Peter and Rob discussed about Bush’s record fit this category, and I agree that Bush was a responsible governor. In the other sense, “conservative” carries an ideological meaning, indicating a will to preserve the values that led to the Revolution against the King. These are traditional Germanic/English legal principles with a heavy dose of liberal Enlightenment thought. The distinguishing characteristic of this sense of conservatism is a wariness of state action.
Bush’s record in Florida — particularly in education reform, for which he is often cited as a major innovator — is a mixed bag, with some characteristics that appeal to ideological conservatives and others that favor the more responsibility-centered definition of that word. Bush was indisputably acting out of ideological conservatism when he ended affirmative action in college admissions, as racial discrimination has been a hallmark of progressives all along. He also made a real effort to break the back of the government-run school monopoly through introducing the United States’ first-state wide voucher and charter-school programs. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Florida found the voucher program violated the state constitution, and ended it in its ninth year. Bush then attempted to amend the constitution to allow the program, but was stymied in part by Republicans in the Florida Senate.
“Quit using public money to send our kids to private schools,” said Republican State Senator Dennis Jones, one of four Republicans to torpedo the amendment.
In contrast to his voucher program, Bush’s charter school efforts — which started before he became governor of Florida — survived the Florida supreme court and have proven quite popular. The charter school program is also, notably, much larger than the voucher program ever was, serving some 67,000 students today compared to the mere hundreds of children served by vouchers when the program ended. Unlike the voucher schools, charter schools are funded directly by the state, although they operate under a simplified set of regulations and are managed outside the “uniform” school system. They, too, are now under attack.
The vouchers and the removal of affirmative action are indisputably conservative efforts in the ideological sense. Charter schools are something of a compromise: they’re a responsible thing to do, but given that they’re ultimately state-directed, they don’t really advance conservative principles.
So — foiled on the voucher front, but with some success with charter schools — Bush then turned his attention to progressive “responsible government” solutions, the core of which is centralized testing and the centralization of state power over the curriculum. I don’t think standardized testing is inherently progressive or conservative, though having the state run the show is definitely not conservative. There’s a logic to continuing to centralize once it’s started, as failing public schools don’t disappear, as the students can’t leave, and without a set metric to define performance, it’s impossible to improve.
Fast forward to today. Unlike Florida, the Federal government has no assigned responsibility for, or power over, education. A principled conservative could take a principled stand against Federal interference in state responsibilities. Unfortunately, Bush has abandoned his Florida-specific reforms and has replaced them with his advocacy for a Common Core based program. This has put Bush is on the wrong side of ideological conservatives. Either he doesn’t realize what Common Core is actually about, or he’s being disingenuous. I don’t know which is worse (probably the former).
The best that can be said for Bush now is that he tried some ideologically conservative approaches as governor — and continues to talk that talk — but walks the walk of a progressive responsible-government reformer. “School choice,” after all, becomes largely an academic exercise if all schools are teaching the same federally-mandated curriculum.
Bush might make the federal budget look less horrendous — much as Gingrich did with Clinton — but it strains credulity to think his toe-in-the-water approach to conservatism is going to amount to much in terms of enacting its principles should he be elected.Published in