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Jeb Bush Defends Common Core, Challenges its Opponents

Wilfredo Lee / AP

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered a staunch defense of the Common Core education standards that are controversial within the Republican Party. He defended his unpopular position that puts him at odds with many in his party, especially among grassroots conservatives.

During his keynote address at his education foundation’s annual conference in Washington, DC Thursday, Bush acknowledged the rift within his party on the issue. He admitted that his opinions about standardized testing “might be in the minority some of the time,” but he defended his position, saying that testing is a “critical” component to educational achievement and accountability.

The topic and the timing of Bush’s first public appearance since the midterm election is significant. Bush is contemplating a presidential run and his brother, former President George W. Bush told NBC News in November that he is thinking about it.

Bush has differentiated himself from other possible contenders in his party over the issue of Common Core. Many conservatives don't like the nationalized education standards because they say education is a local issue and not a federal one.

Bush told the ballroom of education advocates that “the debate over Common Core State Standards has been troubling" because, he says, it has been filled with misconceptions.

He challenged its detractors to do better: "For those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: Aim even higher, be bolder, raise standards and ask more of our students and the system."

Jeb bush Defends Common Core 1:24

The juxtaposition between Bush and others in his party is readily apparent. At the Republican Governors Association meeting happening simultaneously in Bush’s home state of Florida, a panel of Republican governors also considering a presidential run slammed the educational standards that have been adopted by the federal government and imposed on states in exchange for federal funding.

Texas Governor Rick Perry said, “I think we are on a return to federalism like we’ve never seen before.”

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who originally supported Common Core but now is suing the government over the standards, said at a forum moderated by “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd Wednesday, “What I object to is when the Department of Education makes decisions.”

And Indiana Governor Mike Pence, also a potential 2016 contender, brought up the controversial federal education program crafted by Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, called No Child Left Behind, which is the precursor to Common Core and the first major nationalization of education standards. “I was part of a group that actually opposed NCLB.”

Bush’s vocal support of Common Core runs the risk of alienating a key part of the Republican base if he chooses to launch a presidential bid.

But he has chosen not to run from his position. And he really can’t. His foundation, Foundation for Excellence in Education, has been one of the biggest proponents of Common Core and receives major financial support from people and foundations that also back the standards, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms,” Bush said.

Bush insists that national educational standards are needed because expectations have been lowered in places throughout the country to protect students from failing or losing their self-esteem. To show that Common Core standards are necessary, he pointed to troubling statistics: The U.S. ranks 21st in reading and 31st in math globally.

“The rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms,” Bush said.

Bush did, however, attempt to appeal to conservatives who believe education should be a purely local issue. He said states and local districts should have some control of standardized tests. He said states should decide the test given to students and that local school districts should use tests in a way that works for the teachers.

While Bush hasn’t traveled to Iowa or New Hampshire, early presidential nominating states, he did campaign or raise money for 40 candidates in the midterms, including Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, an important move for a potential contender to connect with donors and Republicans across the country.

On another issue where he differs from many in his party – immigration – Bush did not address the issue ahead of President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night announcing his immigration action, despite repeated attempts to obtain a comment. Campbell, his spokesperson, said he “doesn’t want to get ahead of the President’s speech.”