Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday urged state officials to follow through on Common Core education standards despite what he called an "avalanche" of criticism from those who oppose them.
Bush said at an education forum with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that the standards are key to improving educational achievement around the country.
"This is a real-world, grown-up approach to a real crisis that we have," said Bush, who later brushed off reporters' questions about his presidential aspirations. "And it's been mired in politics.
"Trust me I know," he said. "There are not a whole lot of people who are standing up to this avalanche."
Bush ascribed the opposition to Common Core to what he called "myths" about the standards being part of a federal takeover of local classrooms.
Common Core standards spell out what math and reading skills students should have in each grade. They are designed to make students think and reason more than they do with traditional classroom work.
Tennessee is among the vast majority of states that have adopted the standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with help from teachers, parents and experts.
But Tennessee is also among the states grappling with a backlash against Common Core, especially by conservative groups.
Haslam on Tuesday embarked on a hastily arranged statewide tour to try to drum up support for Common Core amid moves by state lawmakers seeking to delay the standards and related testing by two years.
Alexander, a former two-term governor and U.S. education secretary, is running for a third term in the Senate this year. He has voiced support for education initiatives originating with the states, but has introduced legislation seeking to keep federal waiver decisions from being based on participation in programs like Common Core.
"Washington, D.C., should keep its sticky fingers off state education standards," Alexander said.
Alexander's primary opponent Joe Carr, a state representative from Murfreesboro, criticized Alexander for not doing more to oppose Common Core.
"The tide is beginning to turn against Common Core in Tennessee and it was my hope that Senator Alexander would join conservatives and help us work to defeat it," Carr said. "Instead, it appears Senator Alexander is once again joining with the political establishment, this time fighting to save Common Core."
Haslam has cited the tougher standards when noting Tennessee's rapid improvement in national test scores, and officials have expressed surprise that those achievements have failed to take the air out of Common Core critics.
At Wednesday's forum, Bush appealed to lawmakers in attendance to stand firm.
"I know it's hard when you go back to your districts when you hear these things," he said. "You've got to stay the course on higher standards and higher expectations."
Bush's visit to Tennessee is part of a tour that will take him to other politically important states, including New Mexico, Nevada - and Texas, where Bush will cross paths with a potential opponent in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Bush on Tuesday met privately with Republican state lawmakers in House Speaker Beth Harwell's office. Harwell said she was excited about a potential Bush presidential bid, and said she doesn't expect his vocal support for Common Core to become a political liability.
"I don't think anyone is opposed to higher standards," the Nashville Republican said. "How we get there is the question, but everyone knows that evaluating the system and holding teachers accountable produces good results."