When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced his presidential candidacy in January 2015, I was enthusiastic, largely on foreign policy grounds. It seemed he might champion the sort of conservative internationalism that characterized his father’s one-term presidency. I didn’t pay much attention to his views of domestic policy, but Alec MaGillis’s New Yorker article about Bush’s enthusiasm for privatizing public education caught my eye. Before I had time to follow up, Donald Trump had elbowed him out the race.
Last week Bush came to Harvard to deliver its annual Godkin Lecture. That the occasion was announced just two days ahead of time came as something of a surprise. I went round to hear what the would-have-been candidate had to say.
The Godkin series is Harvard’s most most prestigious lecture in the social sciences. It was established in 1903, endowed by Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and others, to explore the essentials of democratic government and the duties of the citizen, in memory ofEdwin Godkin, founder of The Nation magazine and for 20 years editor of The New York Post. Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, C.P. Snow, Clark Kerr, Gunnar Myrdal, Paul Samuelson, George Will, Daniel Patrick Moynihan have been among the lecturers.
Bush’s presentation turned out not to be a lecture. It was billed as a “conversation,” but what the audience heard instead was an abbreviated stump speech, plus some back-and forth with Harvard Professors Paul E. Peterson and Roland Fryer.
“I was thinking about what I was going to talk about,” he said, “and I asked my mother, who is the boss of the Bush family, and she said, ‘Jeb, talk about 10 minutes, then get off and let people ask you questions.’”
He talked for 15 minutes about the desirability of a “bottom-up” society of individuals as opposed to a “top-down” society in which institutions were paramount, ending with a caIl for a “radical transformation” of public education. “A system that has 13,100 government-run, politicized, unionized monopolies as the governance model for educating millions of children of great diversity is not going to work….
“No other element of society is forcing people to go to a monopoly. We don’t have state-run grocery stores. Even the Medicaid program is basically privatized, where there are choices. . In schools, the most important thing we do, we’re stuck in this model that probably worked really well a hundred years ago….”
Perhaps Bush is planning to write a book. If so, the invitation to lecture was premature. He has promised to return to Cambridge periodically during the autumn term to work with students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, led by Professor Peterson, a voucher enthusiast. Perhaps the Godkin invitation slipped between the cracks; Kennedy School Dean took over only in January.
More likely, the event was timed with a November 8 ballot initiative in mind. In Proposition 2, Massachusetts votes on whether the state should authorize more charter schools. Its backers call it an effort to support public education.
Whatever the case, Bush’s presidential candidacy is in the rear-view mirror. Future Republican leaders will come from the bottom up.
David Warsh is proprietor of economicprincipals.com and a longtime financial columnist and economic historian. He is based in the Boston area.