Groundbreaking Report Shows Competition From School Choice Sparks Widespread Public School Reform

John Kramer
John Kramer · April 24, 2000

Washington, D.C.—Competition from school choice is forcing Florida’s failing public schools to clean up their act. That is the finding of a report released today based on more than 300 documents supplied by the public schools themselves.

The report, titled “Competing to Win: How Florida’s A+ Plan Has Triggered Public School Reform,” found widespread efforts by public schools to improve their instruction and teacher training as a result of competitive pressures brought to bear by the nation’s first statewide school choice program. It concluded that without the consequences of school choice-including the loss of potential students to other higher-performing public and private schools-meaningful public school reform is unlikely.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan for Education establishes consequences for public schools whose pupils fail to attain an acceptable level of achievement on the state’s new standards-based assessment. The first consequence is an unmistakable marking of failing schools with an “F” under the state’s new letter-grade school report card. The second consequence kicks in for continued failure. Children in schools that receive an “F” for two years in any four-year period are no longer trapped in schools where the majority of children are not learning to read, write or do math at their grade level. Rather, they can opt out in one of two ways-with a state-funded “Opportunity Scholarship” that will pay their tuition at a participating private school, or by transferring to a higher-performing public school within the district or in an adjacent district. The state per-pupil funding of about $3,400 follows the student and is lost to the school that fails to improve.

District school officials called the measures harsh, although the state is making more than $1.5 billion in additional funds available to the districts for school improvements over the 1999 and 2000 fiscal years.

But, as the report states, “harsh is persuasive.”

The report finds that, “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.”

The report states, “While the merits of the education reform measures some schools have chosen can be debated, the important thing is that the A+ Plan has instilled in the public schools a sense of urgency and zeal for reform not seen in the past when a school’s failure was rewarded only with more money that reinforced failure.”

The data for the study was derived by the Institute for Justice through public records requests of all school districts with failing schools. The report was authored by education writer Carol Innerst, who sifted through the documents and summarized what she found. Among the organizations that co-published the report are the Urban League of Greater Miami, Inc., The Collins Center for Public Policy, Floridians for School Choice, The James Madison Institute, and The Center for Education Reform.

“This study 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 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.”

Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith will hold a hearing tomorrow (Tuesday, April 25) on whether to halt the program. Considering the current legal controversy, Bolick added, “An injunction would be a tragedy for all Florida schoolchildren. If kids can’t leave the system, serious reform will screech to a halt. We expect to use the study as a cornerstone of our case against lifting the stay of the injunction.”

The Florida study builds on similar findings in Milwaukee, where the nation’s oldest publicly funded school choice plan is approaching its tenth year in operation. In Milwaukee, the mayor, the school board president, the former and current superintendents, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel all agree that choice has prodded positive public school reforms.

Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of Milwaukee’s public schools in fact provides the introduction for Innerst’s report. In his introduction, Fuller said, “Innerst’s findings came as no surprise to me. Her comprehensive study of how Florida school districts have responded to the Opportunity Scholarship program makes a valuable contribution by reinforcing what we in Milwaukee already have learned: providing parents with additional options increases the responsiveness and accountability of public schools, and serves as a crucial impetus for public school reform. For this reason, Innerst’s report should be read by everyone interested in improving the quality of educational opportunities available to our nation’s economically disadvantaged children.”

For a copy of the report, journalists may contact the Institute for Justice at (703) 682-9320 , or view the report here on the IJ website.

For more information on the report, contact the Urban League of Greater Miami, Inc. at (305) 696-4450; The Collins Center for Public Policy at (850) 644-1441; Floridians for School Choice at (305) 702-5577; The James Madison Institute at (850) 386-3131; or The Center for Education Reform at (202) 822-9000.