TALLAHASSEE -- He looked like a presidential candidate Tuesday, hosting a $1,000-a-person lunchtime fundraiser at a posh Tallahassee hotel and convening lawmakers to discuss one of his top priorities.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush insisted, however, he had yet to make a decision on whether to run.
“I’m moving forward methodically on this,” he told reporters, adding he doesn’t have “a particular time frame.”
Bush’s trip to the state capital Tuesday was a return to familiar ground.
After the fundraiser at the Hotel Duval, where Bush was introduced by Attorney General Pam Bondi as “the next president of the United States,” he held an afternoon-long summit on his signature issue: education.
Bush touted the accountability and school choice programs he launched 15 years ago, and looked forward to customized instruction and digital classrooms.
“The simple fact is, all kids are doing better because parents have more choices,” he said.
The discussion came at a time when many of Bush’s legacy initiatives have come under fire. Parents have complained so loudly about testing that the Legislature is working to scale back the number of exams. What’s more, a voucher program for children from low-income families is facing a legal challenge from the statewide teachers union, PTA and school boards association.
Bush addressed both issues Tuesday. He slammed the lawsuit, saying the teachers union exists only “to protect the economic interests of adults.”
“A monopoly that doesn’t have choice is an easier path for them to achieve their objectives,” he said.
But he praised the state’s decision to review its testing policies. “There should be fewer tests and they should be as good as they can be,” he said.
Bush has been in the spotlight since December, when he announced that he was considering running for president. He launched a political action committee called Right to Rise to facilitate a possible campaign.
A poll last week had him leading among potential Republicans candidates in New Hampshire.
His visit to Tallahassee was his first public appearance in Florida since the December announcement. It also included a 45-minute private meeting with Gov. Rick Scott at the governor’s mansion.
The fundraiser drew more than 300 supporters, many of whom wore Jeb ‘16 stickers on their lapels.
Bush talked candidly about his time as governor, and said America needs the kind of “solid, conservative, common-sense, reform-minded conservatism” he brought to Florida.
Plenty of Republican lawmakers were happy to welcome Bush back to Tallahassee.
“Thanks to the work Gov. Bush started in 1999, Florida is now a national leader in education and the difference is certainly clear,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said at the summit, adding that the Legislature would not retreat from school accountability.
Some teachers, however, voiced concerns about Bush’s education agenda during a telephone town hall hosted by the left-leaning non-profit Progress Florida. And several protested Tuesday’s summit.
“If Jeb were to be elected president, public schools would cease to exist,” said Thomas James, a Miami-Dade teacher and member of the Florida Badass Teacher Association, an organization that is pushing back on the state’s education reform agenda. “He would put us out of business.”
The statewide teachers union did not participate in the protest. But Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall called the summit “a Kabuki dance.”
“He’s gathered all of the stakeholders to make sure nothing is dismantled of his legacy because that legacy will be his springboard for the presidency,” McCall said. “The bottom line for us is that we’ve had 15 years of failed reform and the system is crumbling.”