He bragged about the school during campaigns—and then it shut down.
The charter school that was once Jeb Bush’s pride and joy is now a trash-filled ruin in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. It was also the place where the presumptive 2016 presidential candidate found it necessary to remove sex education from the curriculum and replace it with “character education.”
Liberty City Charter School (LCCS) was cofounded in 1996 by Bush as the first charter school in the state, located in a poor and mostly black neighborhood that Bush described as “one of the most challenging inner-city neighborhoods in Miami.” Bush worked on the school after running as an arch-conservative in the 1994 gubernatorial election—he lost—during which he said he would do “probably nothing” for African-Americans when he was governor.
On Sunday, the New York Times published an article on Bush’s involvement with the school that ultimately ended with its failure—despite the fact that Bush cites it as an example of his education success. While the Times reinvigorated the national conversation about the LCCS, it’s really something that has never gone away.
From eternal Internet debates to Bush himself, Liberty City is one of the defining sagas of Bush’s career because it marks the very beginning of his drive to reform education.
“The actual experience of the school shows the perils of Bush’s free-market ideology,” wrote Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and research professor of education at New York University, on her blog about education.
Elected governor of Florida in 1998, Bush boasted about the school on many fronts for many years, a trend that continues today during his pseudo-presidential campaign. Back then, he argued the LCCS was a prime example of privatization working wonders.
In the ’90s, Bush wrote of the “deinvention of government” by turning public institutions, like the education and justice systems, into for-profit industry. Charter schools, which have spread across the U.S., are largely funded by taxpayers but administered privately.
Bush also bragged that his charter school was a vanguard of “virtue and free society.” Specifically, he boasted about the removal of sex education, calling it proof of the “freedom” given to school teachers and administrators. He also said it was part of “a nationwide movement to restore genuine character education.”
It’s important to note that Bush’s school removed sex education from the curriculum in a neighborhood where teen pregnancy rates are high and healthcare dollars for pregnant women are in infamously short supply.
It was a win for “the connection between virtue and good citizenship,” Bush argued, further asserting that “old-fashioned moral instruction that once served us so well” ought to be reinstated at the expense of programs like sex education in order to “make sure our schools are reinforcing what we have taught our children.”
Bush’s bragging about his removal of sex education comes from the archives of Imprimis, an influential but relatively under-the-radar conservative publication that has boasted some of the foremost leaders of the Republican party as contributors.
“After a prolonged debate between the Foundation and the Dade County school board, LCCS has also replaced the ‘human growth and development’ classes taught in other Florida public schools with its own alternative classes in character education,” Bush wrote in the April 1997 issue of Imprimis. “In case you aren’t up on this latest politically correct trend in public education, ‘Human growth and development’ classes teach sex education not only to older children but to kindergartners and first graders, who perform a variety of exercises to identify their ‘private parts.’”
Bush’s attacks against the “politically correct trend” of sex education in public schools played well in the conservative circles of the 1990s. He portrayed himself as a harsh conservative during the early days of his political career than he does now that he is effectively a national candidate running for president. In the 1980s, for example, when Bush began his political career by working on his father’s campaigns, the son called himself a “hang-’em-by-the-neck conservative.”
Throughout his time as governor, abstinence-only education programs increased in funding and access to public schools. At the same time, the number of annual abortions in the state rose.
The school’s story still resonates with Miami residents and school staffers. Alicia Banuchi, a former administrative assistant at LCCS, spoke out on the issue earlier this year.
“Immediately after he won the race for governor by winning the black vote, he abandoned the school and the poor children and families with whom he had developed a personal relationship,” Banuchi wrote in the Miami Herald. “Jeb Bush failed to bring success to his own school. Worse, he abandoned it while it was still in operation.”
As recently as last month, a campaigning Bush said his charter school helped “change education in Florida.” In fact, the school failed to meet federal education standards for progress and, due to financial and academic difficulties, was shut down a decade after it opened when resources ran dry and Bush lost his support base.
During his successful campaign for governor, Bush said that he wanted to spare the school “the ugliness of a political campaign.” Meanwhile, he talked about it all the time during speeches and on his website.
The Liberty City Charter School was undeniably a political ploy to some extent, as made evident by how often Bush has used the school in politics. To promote himself and the school, Bush said that the LCCS believed in “supply-side ethics,” a reference to Reagan-era economics, and spouted the idea that “a student who excels in virtue will also excel in academics.”
Why might Bush be quiet today about the strategies he employed in the ’90s that removed sex education from his school?
It could have something to do with the fact that the vast majority of American adults today favor sex education in schools, young people wish they were better educated, and abstinence-only education—the kind that president George W. Bush favored—consistently fails to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
Bush’s spokeswoman declined to comment on this story.
Photo via Hillary/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
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