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Threat of Vouchers Motivates Schools to Improve, Study Says
By Diana Jean Schemo
A new study of Florida's efforts to turn around failing schools has found that the threat that children would receive vouchers to attend private schools spurred the worst performing schools to make significant academic strides.
The study, sponsored by the state, was conducted by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, a pro- voucher research group based in Manhattan. The study promptly came under fire from opponents of vouchers, with some saying that it was the state's failing grade of the schools rather than the threat of vouchers that motivated the schools to improve. Some independent researchers said it was far too early to tell much from the Florida initiative.
While Dr. Greene's methods have been questioned, the stakes nevertheless are high. Gov. Jeb Bush's educational program in Florida has been held up as a model for its combination of aggressive testing of schools' performance, backed by taxpayer-financed vouchers, which his brother President Bush is proposing for the nation as a whole.
The study by Dr. Greene found that 76 public schools that had received failing scores on the state achievement test once, and would have lost children to private schools if they failed a second time, all improved enough to remove themselves from the failing list in the course of the second year.
The gains, Dr. Greene said, were greater for schools receiving an F on the state's ranking scale than for those receiving a D, a grade that also indicated poor performance, but did not carry the threat of vouchers.
"The most obvious explanation for these findings is that an accountability system with vouchers as the sanction for repeated failure really motivates schools to improve," Dr. Greene wrote. "It appears as if Florida schools that foresee the imminent challenge of having to compete for their students take the necessary steps to retain their students and stave off that competition."
Some independent researchers questioned whether it was too early to make a conclusive statement about the impact of vouchers. "The program is still in its infancy, and I fully believe that it takes awhile, several years at least, before you can look back and look at the early effects of the program," said David Figlio, an economist at the University of Florida who is studying vouchers. Professor Figlio and Cecelia Rouse, of Princeton University's School of Public Policy, are collecting base line data for a study of the Florida program over several years.
Professor Rouse said that "the real challenge in all of this is to understand is it really the test scores or is it something else" setting off the improvement.
Three years ago, Governor Bush embarked on an educational overhaul in Florida, which relied upon annual testing of students and the first statewide voucher program based not on income, but school performance.
Under the Florida plan, schools are graded by the share of the student body passing state reading, writing and math exams, with students at schools that fail in two out of four years eligible to receive private school vouchers. In March, the Florida Supreme Court ruled vouchers unconstitutional, but the governor is appealing.
President Bush has insisted that spending on education be driven by research demonstrating the effectiveness of particular policies or programs. He has held up Texas, his home state, as a model of how schools can improve, although there, vouchers are not part of the equation.
Today, House Republicans embraced the study, and set out for Florida where they will hold hearings Friday on President Bush's educational proposal.
Dr. Greene's methods came under fire from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, an opponent of vouchers. Michael Pons, a policy analyst at the union, complained that the study "excludes any other potential explanations for the results except for vouchers, cheating and chance."
Mr. Pons said, "Our view is that the school improvements, the efforts that were made in those schools, made the difference, not the vouchers."
©2001 The New York Times
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