BOISE - Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush today proclaimed Idaho’s school-reform laws requiring online courses and funding them “one of a kind,” and said he thinks they “will be the models for the rest of the country.”
Bush and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who head the Digital Learning Council, came to Boise at their own expense today to address state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” technology task force, which is working on a plan to implement the reform laws and their technology requirements. Those include phasing in a plan to have one “mobile computing device” for every Idaho high school student within five years, and to require online classes for high school graduation.
Luna said, “There’s no better example of education reform experts in the country than these two gentlemen.”
Bush, a Republican, who served two terms as governor of Florida ending in 2007, is known for reforms including private-school vouchers, online courses and requiring third-graders to pass reading tests before they move up to fourth grade, ending “social promotion.” Wise, a Democrat, served as West Virginia’s governor from 2001 to 2005, and pushed successful “promise scholarship” legislation that helped thousands of West Virginia high school graduates continue their education; he’s also the chairman of the national board for professional teacher standards.
Bush said he was in Idaho “as an evangelist for digital learning,” and also to commend Luna and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter for pushing through the controversial “Students Come First” reform laws, which he called a “comprehensive suite of reforms that really is as important as any state effort in the last decade.”
The measures remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers; impose a new merit-pay bonus system; and shift funds from teacher and administrator salaries to technology boosts and a new focus on online learning.
They’ve been highly controversial because they come at a time when Idaho is cutting funding for education; the required shifts in funding will mean fewer teachers or big pay cuts. Three referendum measures qualified for the November 2012 ballot yesterday that would overturn the laws.
Bush called digital learning “the tip of the spear” in education reform, but said, “What I learned in Florida was that in order to have rising student achievement happen, more often than not you have to attack this through a comprehensive effort.” He said, “The spear itself is how you reward teachers, particularly in the underserved areas and the underserved subjects, how you bring accountability to the system, how you bring a little bit of dynamic pressure so that student achievement becomes the norm rather than the exception. It requires broad policy changes, and that’s what you did this year.”
Bush also said he thinks Idaho’s move toward digital learning will be “a huge economic development tool,” as educators create “the content that can be exported from Idaho to other places around the country as this digital revolution takes hold.”
He said Florida requires one online course in high school. Idaho’s plan, to have the state Board of Education set a requirement that likely will be much higher, will “put Idaho on the map,” Bush said. “I don’t think any other state has taken this to this step.”
Also unique to Idaho, he said, is the provision of the school reform law that automatically shifts funds from school districts to online course providers if students decide to take online classes. “This is part of the funding formula, so it’s not just an interesting peripheral, it’s front and center, it’s at the core of what education’s about,” Bush said. “That is unique. I don’t think any state’s done that in the country.”
Wise said, “I happen to believe that every child needs a mobile Internet access device.” But, he said, “It needs a strategy behind it.” He praised Idaho’s approach of giving the devices to teachers first, as part of a phased-in program. “That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “It’s the pedagogy of technology that also needs to be a major element. You’re thinking those things through. … Technology is part of the total learning environment now, it’s not just an add-on.”
Bush said results are what will make the reforms succeed. “Implemented right, you’re going to see rising student achievement. It takes away a lot of the opposition,” he said. “You can measure whether they’re successful or not by the actual results.”
Wise said, “What digital education and technology does is permit us to draw the best information and content from wherever we can in the world and make it available. … That’s what’s so exciting.”