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Jeb Bush vs. Matt Damon on schools and testing

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
August 12, 2013 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
Jeb Bush tweeted a criticism of Matt Damon for not putting his support of public schools into practice.
Jeb Bush tweeted a criticism of Matt Damon for not putting his support of public schools into practice.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Testing is controversial but provides needed accountabiity in schools
  • Matt Damon, a proud graduate of public schools, questioned emphasis on testing
  • Damon said he didn't send his kids to public schools as they lack "progressive education"
  • Navarrette: Jeb Bush was right to call out Damon for not living up to his ideals

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego (CNN) -- Here is an unlikely duel: It's Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, vs. Matt Damon, actor and activist.

The topic: School accountability measures that rely on high-stakes testing to determine which students are learning, which educators are teaching and which schools are working.

Bush supports the tests, Damon opposes them. More on how their paths crossed in a minute.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

First, take it from someone who taught for four years as a substitute teacher in my old school district in Central California and who has written about education reform for more than two decades: Many educators don't want to advertise to the world how well their students are doing academically because, from there, it's a short walk to grading teacher performance.

That is what accountability is all about. You probably have it in your job. I have it in mine. But a lot of public school teachers want nothing to do with it.

Accountability includes the No Child Left Behind law, which set forth the radical proposition that all students should be at grade level in math and reading by 2014. The law also broke down testing data according to race and ethnicity, so minority communities could see how well the public schools in their neighborhoods are serving their students. 

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Enter Damon, whose mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University in Boston. Damon is himself a product of public schools, a fact that he eagerly shared with the crowd of teachers that he addressed in Washington in July 2011 as part of a protest called "Save Our Schools."

The protesters had gathered because they were upset with the Obama administration, which has picked up the mantle of high-stakes testing from its predecessor through its own education reform initiative, "Race to the Top."

In his remarks, Damon looked back fondly on his own educational experience while criticizing high-stakes testing and other school accountability measures.

"As I look at my life today," he told the crowd, "the things I value most about myself -- my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity -- all come from how I was parented and taught. And none of these qualities that I've just mentioned -- none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success -- none of these qualities that make me who I am ... can be tested."

The crowd roared.

More recently, Damon -- who grew up in the Boston area but now lives in the Los Angeles area -- has opened a can of worms by recently revealing to the Guardian newspaper that, his love for the public schools notwithstanding, he made other arrangements for his own kids.

"Sending our kids in my family to private school was a big, big, big deal," Damon said in the interview. "And it was a giant family discussion. But it was a circular conversation, really, because ultimately we don't have a choice. I mean, I pay for a private education, and I'm trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system."

The public schools are not progressive enough? In Los Angeles? Really?

So despite his fondness for public schools, the 42-year-old actor doesn't want his children anywhere near them.

Oh, oh. This caught the attention of Jeb Bush, who last week took to Twitter to denounce Damon's hypocrisy.

Jeb Bush (@JebBush) tweeted:

"Matt Damon Refuses to Enroll Kids in Los Angeles Public Schools. Choice ok for Damon, why not everyone else?"

Fair? You bet. Damon has long been a cheerleader for the public schools, and so the actor deserved this spanking for his self-serving "good enough for thee, but not for me" defense of a public school system that he and his own family have abandoned. Others have said the same thing.

Yet now it is Bush's turn to get spanked.

The liberal media is already -- surprise -- attacking the Republican presidential contender in defense of the Hollywood celebrity. Some have even pointed out that Bush also sent his kids to private school and insisted that this makes the Republican the real hypocrite.

I don't agree. Bush supports school choice and he practiced in his own family. Where's the inconsistency?

The real issue in this story isn't the personalities. It's the policy.

It was not smart of Damon to attack high-stakes testing -- especially since his own kids, because they attend private school, don't have to worry about how bad some of our public schools would be without the accountability measures that their daddy opposes so vehemently.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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