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The Palm Beach Post.

Vouchers Threat Didn’t Spur Schools’ Progress
February 16, 2001

Mary Ellen Flannery

A Harvard University researcher's study found that the threat of school vouchers motivated Florida schools to improve their academic performance - but principals and teachers in Palm Beach County said that's not exactly right.

"Ever since I got there, our motivation has been to improve the achievement of students, and it didn't happen overnight," said West Gate Elementary Principal Thais Villanueva. "It took teacher training, looking at research, reorganizing our resources, and all those things take time. You don't become an Olympic sailor in one day."

"We never even talked about vouchers," she said.

In 1999, eight Palm Beach County schools earned failing grades from the state Department of Education. Two F's in four years means their students will be offered vouchers worth about $3,200 to attend a private school, or the students can transfer to a better public school. But last year, all eight schools did better. Seven earned D's; one, West Gate Elementary in West Palm Beach, earned a C.

"Teachers are all about teaching kids and taking them to a higher level," said North Grade Principal Ian Saltzman, whose school escaped vouchers last year by nearly doubling the number of students who passed writing. "When you have great teachers, like I do, they're motivated to have their students succeed."

The grades were degrading, particularly at schools with many poor students, but they're not responsible for improvement, said Glade View Principal Gale Fulford. Instruction is better; it's more focused on the Sunshine State Standards, she said.

But the study, which was paid for by a grant from the state DOE to Florida State University, was heralded by state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist as solid proof that Florida's A-Plus Plan is working. And, researchers noted the study has national implications, since President Bush wants to offer vouchers at failing schools across the country. The researcher, Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, analyzed the improvement at all Florida schools and he points to the difference in achievement between low-D schools and F-schools as proof that vouchers do make the difference. The low-D schools weren't threatened with choice and they didn't make the same gains as the F-schools, he said.

©2001 The Palm Beach Post



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