Jeb Bush is a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. If that's not hilarious enough, these days the former governor of Florida is a pedagogical arbiter of epic stature, his Foundation for Excellence in Education among the most influential school-policy machines in business. Last week, Bush joined controversial ex–District of Columbia chancellor Michelle Rhee and Center for American Progress CEO John Podesta at Harvard's JFK School of Government for an incestuous orgy appropriately dubbed "Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Education and the Future of Reform." The discussion was moderated by a chief architect of No Child Left Behind: Margaret Spellings, a four-year US secretary of education under Jeb's presidential brah, Dubya.
Spellings rolled kickballs at the panelists, whom she introduced as the "Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner" of ed reform (more like Ray-J, Richard Marx, and Lisa Loeb). As if they weren't tensely debated issues, the gang agreed on everything from merit pay to the importance of excessive standardized testing. In the spirit of the wishful theme, Bush and Spellings posited that scholastic achievement is a rare issue on which Democrats, Republicans, and elected Tea Party wackos (some of whom campaigned to abolish the Department of Education) can agree on.
After cracking up the crowd with a quip about how her own children "suck" at soccer but have closets full of trophies, Rhee suggested that tough love might strengthen America's overconfident yet underachieving students and instructors. Mostly, though, the co-star of Waiting for "Superman" stuck to vilifying teachers and their unions, while Bush beat his chest beside her: "[My] way is to fight the union," he pounded, "for the teachers."
In his turn, Podesta agreed to sort of disagree. A White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, Podesta could have acknowledged that NCLB was largely engineered by former Houston school superintendent Rod Paige, whose fraudulent methodologies were well documented after the fact. Instead, Podesta expressed dissatisfaction with the notion that "kids who need the most get the least," yet remained docile as Bush congratulated himself for pushing policies that reward winning schools and punish failing ones.
Rhee split before the floor opened up for questions, leaving Bush to fumble like his brother when a Florida-bred sophomore stumped her former governor with inquiries about her state's evaluation system. Specifically, she asked why one school with a 40-percent dropout rate has an A rating. The whopper forced Bush to clumsily defend himself, but it was not enough to disrupt the harmony. "And on that note of strong agreement," Spellings said after the last few candy-coated audience inquiries, "we will conclude our panel."