Voucher program boosting scores
Public schools are helping students perform better on state tests, a report says.
February 16, 2001
by Pat Kelly
TALLAHASSEE - The threat of public school students using state-funded vouchers to attend other institutions, including private schools, is motivating lower-performing schools to improve state-test scores, a study of Florida's voucher program suggested Thursday.
"Schools that received a failing grade for the state in 1999, and whose students were offered tuition vouchers if they failed a second time, achieved gains in test scores that were more than twice as large as those with average scores," said Rick Feiock, a professor at Florida State University and one of the principal investigators on the study.
Under the Florida A-Plus Program, established by the Legislature in 1999, schools are graded on a scale of A through F using student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and other indicators, including attendance. Students at schools that receive a failing grade of an F in two of four years on FCAT scores are offered state money to attend a different public or private school.
"This comprehensive study provides just the latest evidence that the students who are benefiting most from our reforms are those children who, in the past, had been most likely to be left behind," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "This new study provides clear evidence of what our schools and students are capable of achieving."
But some educators questioned the wisdom of putting public schools in a pigeonhole determined by the narrowly focused snapshot of test scores.
"We've opposed it (A-Plus Program) from the beginning," said Doug Crawford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators. "I think it is a fallacy to label a whole school and a whole community by using snapshot tests."
He said the A-Plus Program has been flawed since its inception and he questioned the validity of a study conducted with the help of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a group he called "ultra conservative."
The new report was compiled by Florida State University with a grant from the Florida Department of Education. Additional support was provided by Harvard University and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Manatee County educator Patricia Lucas, executive director of educational programs for Manatee County Schools, said parents are skeptical about a program which puts so much weight on too few subjects.
"I think we need to be accountable, but I'm not sure if this is the right way," she said.
According to Feiock, Florida schools that received a failing grade from the state in 1999 gained 18 points on reading scores compared to 4.5 points for schools with a C grade. Scores range from 100 to 500.
On math scores, failing schools gained 26 points compared to a 12 point gain for C schools. On the FCAT writing test, where scores range from 0 to 6, failing schools gained .87 on average compared to .45 for C schools.
Under FCAT, reading and writing tests are conducted in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades, and math FCAT is administered in fifth, eighth and 10th grades.
Feiock said study results were particularly relevant because of the similarities between Florida's A-Plus Program and education proposals made by the Florida governor's brother, President George W. Bush.
The lesson nationally? "The introduction of vouchers has a positive effect on public schools," Feiock said.
Only two schools in the state have received two failing grades, and parents of 134 children in Escambia County chose to use the vouchers, called Opportunity Scholarships, after the 1998-1999 school year.
Seventy-six students transferred to a better-performing public school and 58 chose to attend five participating private schools, according to education officials.
No students became eligible for an Opportunity Scholarship during the 1999-2000 school year because there were no eligible schools.
"I think this report provides solid proof that the Bush-Brogan A-Plus plan is working, and that the FCAT is a reliable measure of student achievement," Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said. "It also shows that our lower-performing schools made the gains in student achievement."
Under the voucher provision of the law, students at failing schools can take the tax money that would be spent on them in that public school and use it to attend a private school or another public school with at least a grade of C or better.
Although schools with failing grades that faced the prospect of losing students through vouchers had the largest testing gains, the study said schools with lower previous test scores in all state-tested grades also showed improvement.
In Manatee County, no schools received a grade of F and students have not been eligible for vouchers. But 16 schools showed improved test scores between the 1999 and 2000 period, with 10 schools improving one grade, five schools improving two grades and one school jumping three grades. Three schools dropped one grade and 18 schools had no change in grade.
In the elementary schools in Manatee County, 12 schools had a grade of A, four schools had a grade of B, eight schools had a grade of C and one had a grade of D for the latest testing period. In the middle schools, one school had an A, two schools had a B and four schools had a C. In the high schools, none had a grade of A or B, four graded C and one had a grade of D.
Two new elementary schools and the Manatee School for the Arts have not been graded.
©2001 Bradenton Herald