School Choice, Not Pre-K, Boosted Florida

Published February 21, 2013

In 1998, Florida and Nevada had the same score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth grade reading test. In 1999, however, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) instituted a series of reforms, including tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, grading schools from A-F, ending social promotion from third grade, a robust system of charter schools, and expanded online learning. Nevada did none of these.

The results for Florida were remarkable. Twelve years later, its fourth graders scored approximately two grade levels higher on the same NAEP test. Nevada, which is similar to Florida demographically, scored only about half a grade level higher. The gains were even higher for minority and non-native English students, whose reading ability increased by up to two-and-a-half grade levels.

Florida and Nevada increased per-pupil spending by similar amounts during this time.

In light of Florida’s remarkable progress, researchers descended upon the state. Their studies confirmed allowing parents to choose any school for their children actually increased academic achievement in public schools. Competition didn’t hinder public schools. It made them better.

Nevada Transplant
Because of Florida’s remarkable track record, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has made emulating it the centerpiece of his education agenda. Going into the 2013 Legislative Session, both Sandoval and Democratic leaders have expressed verbal support for ending social promotion for third graders.

Ending social promotion is important because until third grade children learn to read, and after it children read to learn. If a child “passes” third grade but cannot read, he is set up to fail every day for the rest of his academic career, before, demoralized, he most likely drops out.

Although ending social promotion will benefit Nevada’s students, for the state to achieve Florida-quality gains will require much more.

Misrepresenting the Record
Because even hard-core choice opponents can no longer deny Florida children’s remarkable gains, politicians are now misrepresenting Florida’s record to support a costly failure: pre-Kindergarten.

In Nevada, Democrats have made pre-K—a method of financially subsidizing the party’s teachers-union constituency—a central plank in their education agenda. Appearing on television after their press conference calling for pre-K, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) attempted to justify pre-K spending, saying, “Florida has had almost universal pre-K there and they have shown some significant increases.”

Those comments reveal either ignorance or conscious dissembling. Although Florida did pass a universal pre-K program that was fully implemented in 2005, the earliest those 2005 pre-K students could have taken a fourth-grade NAEP reading test was 2011. And Florida’s 2011 fourth grade reading scores actually decreased by a point from 2009.

Clearly, pre-K did not cause Florida’s remarkable gains.

Additional powerful evidence is in three federally funded studies of Head Start. Head Start is the federal government’s $8 billion a year pre-K program. The latest study was released in December 2012, and it found, like the two previous studies, Head Start produced only minimal gains for students, and those gains almost entirely disappeared by third grade.

School Choice Produces Results
Florida isn’t the only state benefitting from school choice. Although such programs can be structured in numerous ways, the common feature is they empower parents with choices. Parents and students receive their public school funding and then decide among the education choices available, including private schools, virtual learning, and homeschooling.

Today, 21 states and Washington, DC have some form of school choice. Unlike what happens when money pours into a broken system, these programs produce results. School choice raised graduation rates in Washington DC, and it has increased reading and math scores in North Carolina, Wisconsin, New York, and DC.

Nevada’s children are the biggest losers when intelligent and powerful individuals such as Denis ignore the real cause of Florida’s remarkable education gains.

It’s time for Sandoval to spend some political capital showing Nevadans how school choice would improve our education system. And it’s time for legislators to give Nevada kids the education opportunities available in Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, and 18 other states.

Victor Joecks ([email protected]) is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute where an earlier version of this article appeared. Reprinted with permission. Image by Sarah Gilbert.