By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and two top Tennessee Republicans are meeting at an upscale Nashville hotel Wednesday to discuss education policies that have caused divisions within the GOP around the country - including within the Tennessee General Assembly located across the street.
Bush, whose potential presidential aspirations have been the subject of intense speculation, is being joined by Sen. Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam at the event, hosted by business groups that support Common Core standards spelling out what math and reading skills students should have in each grade.
An increasing chorus of critics sees the standards as a federal takeover of local classrooms. Republicans in the Tennessee House last week bucked the governor's wishes by approving a two-year delay in the implementation of the curriculum and testing standards.
The governor's GOP colleagues took that step despite Haslam's earlier admonition that derailing or delaying Common Core would be "exactly the wrong thing to do."
The policy discussion with Bush and Alexander comes a day after Haslam embarked on a hastily organized series of school visits around the state to try to drum up support for the program.
Alexander, a former two-term governor and U.S. education secretary, is running for a third term in the Senate this year. Alexander 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 in an emailed statement.
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.
The 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.
Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with help from teachers, parents and experts, and a vast majority of states opted to adopt them.
Bush has responded to frequent questions about his presidential aspirations with the well-worn answer: "I can honestly tell you that I don't know what I'm going to do."
His 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 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."