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Jeb Bush touts Idaho school reforms

Online requirements will ‘put Idaho on the map’

BOISE – Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday proclaimed Idaho’s school-reform laws “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 together head the Digital Learning Council, came to Boise at their own expense to address state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First technology task force, which is working to implement the reform laws and their technology requirements. Those include 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 grading schools from A to F, 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 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 improvements 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 have qualified for the November 2012 ballot to overturn the laws.

Mike Lanza, a Boise parent and head of the referendum campaign, said Tuesday, “These laws are not about putting students first. Luna’s laws are about turning our public schools into private profit centers for education entrepreneurs at the expense of taxpayers and our children’s education.”

Bush predicted that 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 that 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.”

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