Jeb Bush has spent a lot of time thinking about, talking about and implementing education reform. A staple of his speeches on education is discussion of his founding of the Liberty City Charter School in a poor black area of Miami in the 1990s.
But there is only one problem with highlighting this school as the embodiment of Bush’s philosophy and reform credentials. As was pointed out by the New York Times over the weekend, the Liberty City Charter School was shut down amid allegations of mismanagement, incompetence and low performance.
What Jeb Bush is experiencing now is that there is a magnitude of greater scrutiny attached to the words of any leading presidential candidate that simply doesn’t apply to governors or successful state politicians. Nobody thus far has accused Bush of lying about his involvement with the school, or cashing in on any nefarious manner. But what Bush is getting is reporters sifting though his words and essentially saying “Hey, Bush is talking about this school like it was a big success, but it was shut down as a failure. So Bush is being a big phony trying to pull one over on Republican primary voters.”
Bush was caught doing what all of us do from time to time: Putting a good spin on facts that make ourselves look better than if someone know all the facts of a story. For example, I was selected most outstanding Latin Student at South Mecklenburg High School in 1979 (which seems impressive as long as you don’t find out that I was the only student taking Latin in the school!)
The standards are different when you run for President because the stakes are so much higher: If you pass all the tests, you get to be the most powerful person on the planet and can start and end wars.
I suspect Bush and his team will learn from this, and will change the way he talks about charter schools. He might even embrace the school further by spinning this as a success, by arguing that the school was successful for a decade, but when it went bad, it was shut down, unlike bad public schools that can go on for decades.
This episode won’t hurt Bush’s campaign much. The big question: will he and his team learn from the reaction in order to make his campaign communications even more effective and less susceptible to criticism in the future?
TJ Walker is a communications expert. You can reach him at Media Training Worldwide at 212.764.4955.