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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Journal: Proof competition aids public schools
Thursday, February 15, 2001

FROM THE halls of the U.S. Capitol to the chambers at Georgia's Gold Dome, opponents of school choice argue time and again that providing scholarships for children to escape failing schools would spell the end of public education.

Now, from neighboring Florida, we have solid data that demonstrate the opposite. A new study shows that competition from the private sector is turning around some of Florida's worst public schools. Test scores in those schools show dramatic gains.

Jay P. Greene, a noted Harvard researcher on school choice and senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, released a study today that shows that since instituting the school choice program, gains in reading scores are more than eight times greater in "F" schools than "A" schools. Math scores improved twice as much in "F" schools as in "A" schools.

"The prospect of choice and competition motivates schools to improve," Greene wrote in "An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program."

Last year, Florida began offering scholarships to pupils stuck in schools graded an "F" for two out of four years. Those students were offered a $3,400 Opportunity Scholarship to transfer to another public or private school. Two schools in Pensacola lost a total of 53 pupils to the private sector.

Competition in Florida has helped public schools in other ways. Districts with schools facing the possibility of losing students to Opportunity Scholarships have done the following:

Escambia County, home of the two failing Pensacola schools, has extended its school year to 210 days, including an extended day program from 2 to 4 p.m. It has also instituted Saturday school, 90-minute block periods for reading and math and a program to lower absenteeism by aggressively contacting parents.

In Broward County, where there were seven "F" schools on the verge of going on the Opportunity Scholarship list, summer school is now mandatory for fourth-graders who haven't mastered skills. Students at the county's "F" rated high school who are not native English speakers are offered more intensive language laboratories.

Miami-Dade County schools have switched to phonics-based reading programs, begun encouraging poor parents to go back to school to earn their GED and initiated Saturday remedial reading programs for high school students in low-scoring schools.

Lake County, in central Florida, had one "F" rated school. In response, it reduced the student-teacher ratio in that elementary school to 15-1, extended reading to two hours daily and switched to a Montessori approach to reading.

Polk County schools initiated an extended school day and set up a mentoring program with the business community to tutor low-performing pupils.

President Bush has a federally funded scholarship program as part of his education reform plan now before Congress. Results from his brother's experiment in Florida should convince naysayers that 49 other states would also benefit from a market approach to improving public education.

Scholarship effect on test scores in Florida schools, 1999-2000
School..............Reading gains...... Math gains
"A" Schools............1.9 points........11 points
"B" Schools............4.9 points...... 9.3 points
"C" Schools............4.6 points......11.8 points
"D" Schools............ 10 points........16 points
"F" Schools.......... 17.6 points......25.7 points
Source: Jay P. Greene, "An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program"

©2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



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