Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday tapped former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to serve as chairman of his education foundation, turning over the organization to the former diplomat and academic who remains popular inside the Republican Party.

Rice, a professor at Stanford University and partner in a consulting firm, has for the past two years served as a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Bush launched the group after serving two terms as Florida governor. It served as the primary vehicle through which he maintained a public profile and pushed to export the education policies he pioneered in Florida to other states.

"I cannot overstate Dr. Rice's international and national accomplishments and the vast intellect and bold vision she brings to our ambitious work in reform," Bush said in a letter to foundation staff obtained by The Associated Press.

Bush formally left the foundation late last year, resigning as part of his preparations for a possible run for president in 2016. He also left the boards of several for-profit companies, including Tenet Healthcare Corp. and timber company Rayonier Inc.

In his letter, Bush said F. Philip Handy, who served as chairman of the Florida State Board of Education under Bush and as chairman of his two campaigns for governor, would become the foundation's president.

While hardly an endorsement of a presidential campaign that has yet to formally launch, Rice's move to take over the leadership of Bush's foundation was sure to be noticed by the GOP activists already engaged in the 2016 race.

"Of course, they are going to think she must be inclined to support Jeb," said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi. "That doesn't make it so. But reasonable people could come to that conclusion."

It was a natural decision for Rice to accept the post, based on her commitment to education and her long friendship with Bush, Rice chief of staff Georgia Godfrey said.

As to whether it is an endorsement of a would-be candidate Bush, Godfrey said, "There's not a candidate yet, so there's not an endorsement to be given."

Bush's foundation's worked with state legislatures and lobbied them to adopt what he called the "Florida formula," anchored by strict accountability measures for teachers and students. The measures included an A-through-F grading system for schools, private-school vouchers and ending so-called social promotion for third graders who fail reading tests.

Meanwhile, Bush was meeting Thursday in Utah with 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Aides said the meeting was planned well before Romney surprised many in the party with the news that is considering making a third run for president in 2016.

"I respect him a lot. I admire him a lot," Bush told KUTV as he arrived at the Salt Lake City airport. "He's a great American. I look forward to seeing him."

The meeting drew laughs on Twitter from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another likely 2016 contender, who joked online that Bush "apparently gave Mitt Romney a `third time's a charm' bracelet at their meeting in Utah today."