Florida Earns High Marks for School Reform

Published September 2, 2010

Vermont tops the states when it comes to test scores but ranks at the very bottom in school reforms, while Florida earns a solid B+ for its sweeping and sustained reform efforts, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s report card on American education.

ALEC’s report card, now in its 16th year, offers a comprehensive overview of education achievement levels for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The top 10 reform states on this year’s report card are: Florida, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, South Carolina, Arizona, Arkansas, and Idaho.

The 10 states at the bottom of the reform list are Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Vermont.

The report card rankings penalized states with persistently low or slowly rising test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. States fare better in the rankings if they had relatively high scores and showed consistent achievement growth between 2003 and 2009.

Florida placed third overall on the report card because the Sunshine State had high scores (ranked 11th overall) and showed significant growth (ranked first overall), even though most of Florida’s students come from what the report described as disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘Lots of Choice’ Is Key

Reforms were graded on 10 factors, including the range of school choice, strength of charter school laws, and how teachers are evaluated and certified.

“Unfortunately, no states achieved an ‘A’,” said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute. He coauthored the report card with Andrew LeFevre and Dan Lips.

Florida, which during Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration passed a series of sweeping school reforms in 1999, earned the authors’ plaudits throughout the 141-page report card. Ladner points out, for example, Hispanic 4th grade students in Miami-Dade schools outperformed students in the entire state of Oregon on the NAEP reading test.

Florida’s success may be explained by a few factors, Ladner said. Longevity of reform efforts and “a lot of school choice” were crucial, he said. Several years passed before Florida saw real gains in academic achievement after implementing choice programs a decade ago. “It’s possible if Florida passed those reforms this year or last year, it would be on the bottom of our list,” Ladner said.

Florida also imposed what Ladner calls “sensible top-down” policies. “They’ve been very transparent,” he said. “They don’t use any funny labels or jargon. They grade all the schools with an A, B, C, D, or F. Everyone can understand what that means.”

The state also set up financial incentives for schools that raise their grades year over year, paying bonuses of $100 per pupil if a school improves one grade level or more.

Florida ‘a Starting Point’

Ladner cautioned against reading too much into the report’s rankings, however. “When we rank states, we’re really grading on a curve,” Ladner said. “Even a high-performing state [such as Florida] may not rank well internationally with our Asian and European competitors.”

“We look at Florida as a starting point, not an end point,” he explained. “Florida’s reforms were state of the art in 1999. Well, it’s 2010 now, and we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

Jaryn Emhof, communications director for Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, says Florida is a “myth-busting state.”  She explained, “Everything people say you can’t do in education reform, we’ve shown can be done,” noting Florida is a “majority-minority” state with a large Hispanic population whose first language is usually Spanish.

Emhof said she agrees reform has to be an ongoing project. “The world continues to change, and we can’t rest on our laurels,” she said. “We need to keep reforming to make sure our kids are prepared to enter the world that awaits them.”

Focus on Flexibility

Report coauthor LeFevre, a government relations and public affairs consultant and former executive director of the pro-school choice REACH Alliance in Pennsylvania, says the report card gives higher grades to policies and programs in states that give parents and students the most flexibility in choosing their education.

“The system is still very rigid,” LeFevre said. He says the authors kept flexibility foremost in mind when judging the states’ education policies. “Do states have policies and programs that allow for private school choice? Do states have robust charter school laws? Do they have multiple authorizers? Or do they have caps? Do the states offer intra- and interdistrict choice, or do they just send kids to the school in their ZIP code?”

“Some reforms,” such as alternative teacher certification, “tinker around the edges,” LeFevre said. “And some cut right to the core.” States with more choice will have a more positive impact on student achievementthan those with little or no choice, he said.

Low-Income Students Compared

To maximize comparability among states, the ALEC research team scrutinized the testing performance of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family income, who are not enrolled in either special education or English Language Learner programs.

“We asked the question, if you had to be born over again as an economically disadvantaged child, where would you want to live and go to school?” Ladner explained.

The report card’s authors did not alter data to remove race as a factor, a deliberate decision. “We’re aware of the racial achievement gap in this country,” Ladner said. “It’s a fact of life and something we need to confront.”

“We now have a good idea of what works in K-12 education reform now. We have plenty of evidence of what’s successful and what isn’t. The task now is to get the right policies in place,” Ladner said. “States really should be saying, ‘I’ll have what Florida’s having.'”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.