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Chicago Tribune.

Threat of vouchers does work: State-funded survey evaluates failing schools
February 16, 2001

By Fredreka Schouten

A new, state-funded study of Florida's controversial school voucher program concludes that the threat of vouchers motivated failing schools to improve student performance.

The report, conducted by Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, examined Florida schools that received failing grades from the state in 1999 and whose students would have been eligible for vouchers had the schools flunked a second time. Greene found that a year later, students at the failing schools achieved test score gains far larger than those at other schools.

"The report suggests it is a good idea to identify failing schools, and it does provide support to the idea that failing schools can be motivated to improve," he said.

Voucher advocates say the study - the first of its kind of the so-called Florida A-plus program - rebuts claims by critics that taxpayer-funded vouchers for private-school tuition hurt public education. The report also has national significance because the Florida program, championed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, serves as a model for some of the school accountability efforts advocated nationally by his older brother, President Bush.

"This report confirms that the simple act of giving parents the power to do what they think is best for their children - even if only as a last resort - can compel failing schools to improve," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He predicted the report would have a "significant impact" on the education debate in Congress.

The committee, which will help shape education reform in Washington, will hold a hearing today in Brandenton, Fla., to examine the state's accountability system.

Critics of taxpayer-funded vouchers challenged Greene's findings, arguing that the additional help and money that flowed to failing schools likely were a bigger factor in the school's improvement than the voucher threat.

"Those at the bottom did receive additional attention and resources," said Michael Pons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, "and they had more room to improve than those at the top."

David Clark, spokesman for the 127,000-member Florida Education Association, said it's no surprise that "when you call attention to something and tell teachers, 'This is going to be the be-all-and-end-all of your existence,' you're going to see results."

But Clark argued that the emphasis on improving test results in Florida comes at the expense of other efforts, such as solving teacher shortages and easing school overcrowding.

Union officials also expressed skepticism of the study by the New York-based Manhattan Institute because its education research has favored school choice. "For them to come out with a study that says 'vouchers work' isn't necessarily news," Pons said.

The voucher research was conducted with a $49,000 grant from Florida State University, funded by the state's Department of Education.

Under the 2-year-old Florida A-

plus program, each school is assigned a letter grade based on the students' performance on state tests in reading, writing and math. If schools receive two "F" grades within a four-year period, their students are offered the chance to attend better public schools or vouchers for private school tuition.

Comparing test results over two years, Greene found that schools receiving failing grades in 1999 achieved test score gains more than twice as large as those of other schools. And while other low-performing schools improved their test scores, the schools facing the prospect of vouchers posted "especially large gains."

Greene also found a high correlation between the state's math and reading test scores and results from the Stanford 9, a nationally recognized standardized test, suggesting that the state tests are an accurate measure of student achievement. That's important because critics say so much effort is spent teaching students to pass specific state tests, it is often unclear whether students are really learning.

"There's a great irony that people who cast themselves as the defenders of public schools seem pessimistic about the ability of public schools to improve," Greene said.

On the national level, President Bush has advocated giving students in chronically failing schools about $1,500 to use for education purposes, including tutoring and private school tuition. Administration officials stress that the voucher program is a last resort and just one of several consequences for lagging schools.

But the talk of vouchers has proved so controversial among Capitol Hill Democrats and some Republicans that Bush has acknowledged he might have to negotiate.

Greene's study is far from the final word on Florida's voucher program.

David Figlio, an economist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, is conducting his own six-year study of the A-plus program and says the program cannot be declared a success based on two years of test results.

"Jay's study makes a reasonable first step," Figlio said of the new report.

Henry Levin, of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at New York's Columbia University, said the report offers something for everyone.

"For those people who argue that schools need additional resources, they will find significant support for their message," he said. "For those people who support vouchers, they can make claims that their strategy works."

But, he said, "The overall thesis seems correct, that when schools know that they might be given a 'Scarlet A' and face other consequences, they will respond.

"The question is: Will they go on to become great schools? I don't know."

The local impact:

Nine Escambia County schools received failing grades in 1999. Among those were Bibbs and Dixon who, because of chronically failing grades, became the first two schools in the state to qualify for taxpayer-funded vouchers. No Escambia schools failed in 2000.

No Santa Rosa County schools were on the "F" list in 1999 or 2000.

Across the state, all 78 schools that received failing grades in 1999 raised their grades in 2000.

The voucher research was conducted with a $49,000 grant from Florida State University, funded by the state's Department of Education.

©2001 Pensalcola News Journal



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