Published for Time, December 15, 2011

George W. Bush is writing a sequel to his big education act. The No Child Left Behind law was signed almost a decade ago, with overwhelming approval from Congress (384 to 45 in the House and 91 to 8 in the Senate). Now, amid a bipartisan effort to gut its accountability measures, the former President is quietly pushing new education-reform initiatives aimed at improving and empowering school principals, who too often lack the training or authority to effectively run their schools. And once again, he’s approaching this massive education problem by blurring political lines.

I was invited in my role as TIME’s education columnist to sit in on a small meeting this week that Bush organized in New York City, and I was struck by the roster of advisers he had assembled to guide the George W. Bush Institute’s education work. The group included some big names in the education non-profit world as well as leaders of traditional public schools and charter schools. But by my informal count, most of the 10 people around the table were Democrats, including Clinton and Obama administration alums. “He cares about education deeply, and he gets it,” one staunchly Democratic education consultant, who now works with the institute, told me. The former President has already recruited officials from his administration as well as liberal stalwarts like Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust and Democratic education leaders like former North Carolina Governor James Hunt.

Education has long been a personal priority for Bush, who has said he ran for Texas governor in large part to improve the schools there. Now his institute is fighting hard against America’s complacency about our schools. This fall, for instance, it released a Global Report Card showing that even the wealthiest districts in the country, including Palo Alto, Calif., and the suburbs surrounding Washington, score no better on math, science and reading tests than average schools in 25 developed countries. The institute is looking at complicated and controversial issues such as education finance, teacher pensions and middle schools. These are genuine — and generally overlooked — problems.

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