Two Reports, One Conclusion: School Choice Creating Reform in Florida

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 16, 2001

Washington, D.C. – Florida public schools are responding to incentives to reform created by the statewide opportunity scholarship program implemented by Governor Jeb Bush, a study commissioned by the Florida Department of Education finds. The results of the report, “An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program,” authored by Dr. Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Research Fellow at the Program for Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, corroborate evidence of improvements in Florida schools prompted by vouchers summarized in Carol Innerst’s 2000 report, “Competing to Win: How Florida’s A+ Plan Has Triggered Public School Reform.” The two studies highlight how the first statewide school choice program enabling families to remove their children from failing public schools has produced real improvements in those schools. The studies found that the threat of losing students with vouchers to higher-performing public schools or private schools has prompted innovations in teaching and higher test scores.

“The combined force of these two studies settles the key question in the school choice debate: choice forces public schools to improve,” declared Clint Bolick, the Institute for Justice’s litigation director. The Institute for Justice is defending the Florida’s choice program in court, representing parents and children who use opportunity scholarships. “School choice isn’t just about getting kids out of failing schools into good schools. It’s also about prodding long-overdue public school reform,” commented Bolick.

Under the A-Plus plan, each public school in Florida is assigned a grade, A through F, based on the performance of students on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). Students attending schools that receive two “F” grades in four years are eligible to receive vouchers that enable them to attend private schools or to transfer to another public school.

The official Florida report issued yesterday examines whether schools that faced the prospect of having vouchers offered to their students experienced larger improvements in their FCAT scores than did other schools. Because some critics of the A+ plan might argue that the FCAT results are manipulated so that they do not represent true student achievement, the report first establishes the validity of the FCAT results. The study found a very high correlation between results from the FCAT, a “high-stakes” test, and results from the Stanford 9, a widely respected, low-stakes standardized test administered around the same time. This finding helps confirm the validity of the FCAT scores, removing doubts that gains on the FCAT were merely the product of “teaching to the test” or other techniques designed to manipulate the results. Among the findings of the report:

• Schools that received a failing grade from the state in 1999, and whose students would have been offered tuition vouchers if they had failed a second time, achieved gains in test scores that were more than twice as large as those achieved by other schools.

• These schools achieved a gain of about 18 points on the FCAT reading scores compared with an average gain of 4.5 points for schools that had received a C grade in 1999. Similarly, the schools receiving an F in 1999 also improved their FCAT math scores by about 26 points compared with a 12-point gain for C schools. Scores for both the reading and math tests range from 100 to 500.

• On the FCAT writing test, where scores range from 0 to 6, schools that had received an F grade the year before gained .87 points on average, compared with .45 for C schools.

While Florida schools improved across the board, schools with failing grades that faced the prospect of losing students through vouchers experienced gains that were especially large. These gains should come as no surprise to those who read the Innerst report issued in April 2000. The Innerst report found, “Not only have those schools with children already eligible for the opportunity scholarship program implemented significant reform, but all 15 of the districts with ‘F’ schools—as well as those with ‘D’ schools hovering on the brink of failure—have also moved swiftly to fix their failing ways.” Reforms implemented in districts with failing schools in 1999 included:

• An academic calendar extended to 210 days from 180 days for failing schools in Escambia County. The school day was also extended from 2 to 4 p.m. at least twice a week, and Saturday school was implemented.

• Stronger enforcement policies for attendance at Saturday tutoring sessions and summer school in Broward County. Summer school is now mandatory for all fourth graders likely to be retained without it.

• Pupil-teacher ratios reduced to 15-to-1, extended 2-hour-per-day reading blocks and the use of Montessori methodology in Lake County.

The study released yesterday was co-sponsored by the Askew School and DeVoe Moore Center at Florida State University, the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University. The principal investigators for the evaluation were Professors Richard Feiock and Tom Dye of Florida State University and Professor Paul E. Peterson, Director of PEPG. The study was produced as part of a grant from the Florida Department of Education to Florida State University to conduct an independent evaluation of the A-Plus program.

“This research team combined expertise in governance, education policy and program evaluation, and is uniquely qualified to conduct this evaluation of the Florida A-Plus School Choice Program,” commented Richard Feiock, of the Askew School at FSU. “The similarities between the Florida A-Plus Program and the recent education proposals from President Bush make the results of this evaluation particularly timely and relevant.”

“This new report adds to the growing body of evidence that school choice works,” said Bolick. “Decision makers from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C. owe it to the children to take these findings seriously.”

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading legal defender of school choice, having defended programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Illinois and Arizona. The Institute is defending the constitutionality of Florida’s A-Plus program against a challenge raised by teachers’ unions. In October 2000, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeals for the State of Florida ruled unanimously in favor of the program. That decision is on appeal.