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Jeb Bush to Duncan: Set High Bar for State NCLB Waivers

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has yet to spell out the exact standards he would use in deciding whether states get waivers from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act—a step he says he will take if Congress doesn't get moving in reauthorizing the law.

In the meantime, Jeb Bush is offering the secretary some advice.

The former Florida governor, whose education policies have won praise from some state leaders, especially fellow Republicans, writes in a Politico op-ed this week that Duncan should consider giving waivers to states that agree to move to A-F school grading systems. That model differs from the more pass/fail-oriented approach used by NCLB.

Bush knows the school-grading system well: He pioneered it during his tenure as Florida's governor, from 1999 to 2007. While critics say the system stigmatizes struggling schools, backers of grading policies say it offers a nuanced and supportive approach to academic standards and testing, one that is understandable for parents and rewards schools for improvement, much more so than NCLB. (Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, of course, signed NCLB into law in 2002 and staunchly defended it while in office.)

A number of states, including Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico, have followed Florida's lead in creating A-F grading systems.

In his essay, Bush makes it clear he thinks many states—particularly those that have set low standards—aren't deserving of waivers, and shouldn't be given them unless they up their game.

"Some state leaders have responded to Washington's inaction by announcing they will ignore the law's provisions," he writes. "Others have simply lowered exam passing thresholds to technically—but shamefully—comply. Reductions of this sort are tragic, since many state standards are already too low."

The bar for waivers "should be set high," Bush argues, "with greater flexibility rewarded only to states that implement bold reforms that improve the quality of education and student achievement."

The former governor also suggests that Duncan could give states waivers on the basis on their willingness to promote school choice (which rankles many Democrats, if it means private-school vouchers), tying student academic gains to teacher performance, and digital learning, among other innovations.

Would Bush's ideas fly in Congress? They would certainly seem likely to generate support for waivers among state-level Republicans, and give states credit for work they're already doing. But it might also rankle those who believe A-F systems would promote the same kind of test obsession that many critics believe NCLB promotes today.

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