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The Boston Globe.

Voucher backers tout Fla. scores
Thursday, February 16, 2001

By Scott S. Greenberger

Vouchers may help, rather than hurt, public schools by spurring them to improve, according to a study of Florida test scores released yesterday.

Jay Greene of the pro-voucher Manhattan Institute found test scores rose dramatically at Florida schools that were at risk of losing students, and money, to vouchers. Under vouchers, public education dollars go directly to parents instead of to schools.

Florida's ''A-Plus'' rating system gives each school a letter grade based on the proportion of its students passing the state's standardized test. Students attending schools that get two F's in four years can use vouchers to pay for private schools or transfer to another public one.

The voucher component of President Bush's education reform plan is nearly identical to the system in Florida, where his brother is governor.

''Having vouchers as a consequence at schools that fail and do not improve actually inspires those schools to avoid repeating their failure,'' said Greene, also a research associate at Harvard University's Program on Education Policy.

Critics said Greene's study gives short shrift to negative publicity as a motivating force.

''We believe those schools improved because the communities and the parents rose up to make changes,'' said Michael Pons, a policy analyst at the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. ''I can't envision school principals sitting in their offices wringing their hands about market share.''

Greene found that 76 schools that got F's in 1998-99 showed more improvement on the 1999-2000 test than other schools, improving an average of 17.59 points in reading and 25.66 points in math. In contrast, D schools went up an average of 10.02 and 16.06 points, and C schools gained 4.6 and 11.81 points.

Greene says the disparity between F and D schools proves the threat of vouchers, and not just negative publicity, sparked changes. ''The prospect of vouchers seems to inspire those schools to make important strides,'' he said.

But Gary Orfield, an education researcher at Harvard's Civil Rights Project, questioned whether rising test scores reflected ''teaching to the test,'' a narrowing of curriculum, or even cheating. ''There are ways to make them go up, but whether they are actually related to learning or not is another question,'' he said.

©2001 The Boston Globe


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