WASHINGTON – Responding to a national backlash over Common Core education standards, potential 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Thursday that the set of state benchmarks should be “the new minimum” for America’s classrooms.

“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,” Bush said.

The remarks were part of Bush’s first major speech since the midterm elections and come as the former Florida governor considers joining the wide-open contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Even as he spoke, Bush sought common ground with conservatives who view Common Core as a federal intrusion into local classrooms and who have significant say over the GOP’s presidential candidates.

Bush gave no indication of whether he might make a White House bid. But his answer is one of the largest factors looming over the GOP field. Establishment Republicans and big-money donors see a pragmatic governor who won two terms in the nation’s largest swing state in part by appealing to Florida’s fast-growing Hispanic population. But many conservative activists view him as out-of-touch on key issues like Common Core.

While the reading and math benchmarks were developed by a bipartisan group of governors and superintendents, the Obama administration later promoted them as a way to win federal education grants.

On Thursday, Bush extended an olive branch as he preached a conservative message of limited government, saying states and local communities should have the flexibility to design their own programs with federal dollars.

“I respect those who have weighed in on all sides of this issue,” he said at his education foundation’s annual summit. “Nobody in this debate has a bad motive.”

The conciliatory tone contrasts with Bush’s remarks on the subject at last year’s summit, when he called out critics for “conspiracy theories.”

The former Florida governor and potential GOP presidential candidate said the higher standards were critical to overhauling the country’s education system but that states should be allowed to develop their own education programs.

“If the federal government wants to play a role in reform, it should stop tying every education dollar to a rule written in Washington D.C.,” he said. “Education should be a national priority, not turned into a federal program.”

Bush also addressed a national furor over standardized testing, saying that assessments were critical tools but that “we should have fewer and better tests” to determine student progress.

The speech also offered a preview of what a presidential stump speech might look like, with Bush’s education record at its core. Ticking off statistics, he painted a picture of children trapped in failing schools overseen by “government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies.”

Only a quarter of high school graduates who took the ACT test are prepared for college, he said.

“What is endangered here is not just public education, but the core idea that defines America,” Bush said. “Education reform is about renewing this country. It is about protecting and promoting the right to rise.”

Linking student progress in Florida with his formula of test-based accountability and private-school vouchers, he said “Education is the great equalizer.”

While friends and former aides say they would welcome a White House bid by Bush, they have questioned whether he has the desire to return to the political arena 12 years after his last campaign. In his public speeches, he often laments the partisan vitriol of modern campaigning, and those close to him say he is enjoying a lucrative career as a businessman.

Still, the education summit follows a busy campaign season in which Bush barnstormed the country for Senate and gubernatorial candidates. He also quietly built political capital with GOP leaders in key states by headlining a series of private fundraisers.

Bush, who has said he will make a decision on a 2016 bid by the end of the year, has repeatedly said he must determine whether a presidential campaign would be right for his family. Both his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his brother, former President George W. Bush, have urged him to run.

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