Vouchers Better than NCLB Accountability

Published June 1, 2005

A new study by two Harvard University scholars concludes the vouchers offered under Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) A+ Accountability Plan in Florida are spurring gains in student achievement.

This marks the third time in five years researchers have found public schools respond to the threat of vouchers by launching internal improvements that help children improve their performance. The most recent study, released in late March, came with an added twist: It favorably compared Florida’s reformist use of school choice with the limited public school choice approach currently backed by the federal government.

Researchers Martin R. West and Paul E. Peterson of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found Florida’s vouchers have been more effective than the choice provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in bringing about test score improvements.

“An accountability system that identifies problems with many schools, while giving few sanctions or incentives to improve, appears unlikely to be of much consequence,” they wrote. “All in all, the Florida A+ plan seems better tailored to the particulars of that state than NCLB has been thus far.”

Failing Schools Show Improvement

Under A+, Florida students become eligible for vouchers to transfer to a private school if their public schools receive an “F” on accountability measures twice in a four-year period.

West and Peterson found Florida’s fourth- and fifth-graders made modest but significant gains in math and reading when their schools were in imminent peril of losing students to vouchers. Students in schools that received their initial “F” in 2002 scored from 4 to 5 percent of a standard deviation higher the following year than did students in “D” schools, which did not face an imminent voucher threat.

The stigma of publicly receiving a low grade seemed to provide some reform impetus to “D” schools as well. Their students improved by 5 percent of a standard deviation relative to students in “C” schools.

“Only 8 percent of all schools in the state were given a ‘D,’ so the stigma was readily apparent,” West said in a news release accompanying the study. “It appears that the schools are very capable of moving forward when faced with a clear challenge–either receiving a very low grade or when faced with a voucher threat.”

Results Confirmed Repeatedly

The first study of A+ was done by veteran journalist Carol Innerst in 2000, just a year after the voucher program began. Examining public records the Institute for Justice had assembled in defending A+ from a legal challenge, Innerst found many school districts with “F” or “D” schools had reacted with “a sense of urgency and zeal for reform” to avoid losing students and money.

For instance, she found school officials were switching to proven methods such as teacher-directed instruction, phonics for beginning reading, and tutoring in the late afternoons and on Saturdays.

In 2001, a Manhattan Institute study by Jay P. Greene established that Florida’s voucher program was having a clear-cut, positive effect on student achievement. Schools that had received a failing grade from the state and thus were in danger of having vouchers kick in if they received a second “F” achieved test score gains more than twice as large as those recorded at other schools.

In 2002, NCLB took effect nationwide. Under NCLB, schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward a state-set level of academic proficiency for two consecutive years are found to be “in need of improvement,” and their students are supposed to be given a choice of a better-performing public school in the same school district. But Peterson and West found Florida schools subjected to this public school choice threat under NCLB showed no improvements in student achievement.

A+ Better than NCLB

Peterson sees at least two reasons school choice is more of a force under A+ than under NCLB:

  • Almost 75 percent of Florida’s schools failed to meet AYP in 2003. (Under NCLB, each state determines AYP according to its own standards. AYP rates vary greatly among the states.) By contrast, only 2 percent of Florida schools received an “F” under the state’s accountability system in 2002, while 8 percent received a “D.” Under NCLB, the “sky-high failure rates can undermine the accountability threat. When everyone is criticized, no one is going to take the criticism seriously,” Peterson said.
  • NCLB’s school choice provisions are too anemic to provoke much of a response from public schools in need of improvement. Fewer than 1 percent of students eligible to transfer from one public school to another under NCLB accountability are doing so, Peterson noted. Some critics have accused public school bureaucracies of foot-dragging in informing parents of their right to transfer their children.

Private Choice Crucial

Peterson and West also pointed out that certain features of the A+ plan are “considerably more rigorous” than NCLB. For instance, students at the schools that fail twice under the state’s standards gain the opportunity “to receive a voucher to attend any school–public or private–within the school district or elsewhere.”

NCLB choice extends only to public schools within a student’s school district, and some districts may not have enough high-performing public schools from which to choose.

West and Peterson stress their study looks only at how NCLB choice operates in Florida and does not gauge how that provision is working in other states or the impact NCLB is having overall. But the showing of vouchers’ positive effect on student achievement in Florida could have an impact when NCLB comes before Congress for renewal.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The Harvard study by Martin West and Paul Peterson, “The Efficacy of Choice Threats Within School Accountability Systems: Results From Legislatively Induced Experiments,” is available online at http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/.