Vouchers Motivate Florida Educators

Published June 1, 2000

Despite the cloud hung over it by litigation, Florida’s fledgling A-Plus program already is yielding a mountain of evidence that vouchers–far from harming public schools, as critics claim–have an uplifting effect on low-performing public schools.

According to a new report based on public records from schools across the Sunshine State, public school officials faced with the potential of losing students and money have taken action. Ideas may have consequences, but Florida Governor Jeb Bush has shown that the reverse is also true: Consequences create ideas for improvement.

“Public school educators insist that they are constantly trying to improve their schools, but the reality is that the status quo is comfortable,” says the author of the new report, retired Washington Times education writer Carol Innerst. “Without consequences, it is easy for schools to simply say that some children, by virtue of their poverty or family background or limited English proficiency, have limited ability to learn.”

Bush’s A-Plus education reform program, which went into effect last year, clearly sets out consequences for public schools whose pupils fail to achieve at an acceptable level on the state’s standards-based assessment.

The first consequence is that schools found to be failing to teach children to read, write, or compute receive an “F” on the state’s report cards for schools. When a school’s failure persists, its children become eligible for state-funded $3,400 “Opportunity Scholarships,” or vouchers, that they may use to pay tuition at participating private schools. Or the students may transfer to higher-performing public schools within their district or in an adjacent district.

Innerst’s report, Competing to Win, is based on public records that the Institute for Justice assembled in defending the A-Plus program from a legal challenge. Innerst finds that many Florida public school districts with “F” or “D” schools have reacted with “a sense of urgency and zeal for reform” in their determination not to lose students and money. In other words, school vouchers have an uplifting effect on public schools.

Among Innerst’s findings:

Shift to Phonics

All districts with F or D schools have launched massive efforts to retrain teachers in reading methods that have a record of proven success, such as direct instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. Failed programs like Whole Language are being scrapped.

English Language Labs

Broward County has beefed up services for children whose main language is not English. These children are being placed in high-tech language laboratories and an “intensive academy” for upgrading their English skills.

Helping Parents

Miami-Dade County has turned to a “Total Love” approach that targets fourth- and fifth-graders and their families. In addition to switching the children to a proven phonics program, Total Love encourages parents–many of whom are dropouts–to re-enter school in search of a high school equivalency diploma. In addition, the program supplies materials for parents to set up home learning centers for their children.

Smaller Classes

Lake County’s one F-rated school, Rimes Elementary, lowered its pupil-teacher ratio to 15-to-1, switched to a teacher-directed reading program with lots of drill and practice, and set aside a reading block of two hours a day. Also, when children stay after 5 p.m. for extra tutoring, Rimes now transports them home.

Emergency Plan

In Escambia County–the Pensacola district with the first two failing schools that triggered the first A-Plus vouchers–the public school system adopted what amounted to an emergency plan. It provided for small-group tutoring in the afternoons and on Saturdays; expanded family literacy programs, with home visitation; expanded teaching staffs; decreased non-teaching days for teachers; required parent-teacher conferences for each grading period; and extended the school year by 30 days.

Teacher-Directed Schooling

Gadsen County has gone to an array of teacher-directed, sequential programs, such as Accelerated Reader, Marva Collins, Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction, and Saxon math. Palm Beach has set up classroom libraries, offered after-school and Saturday tutorials, and reverted to homogeneous grouping for reading and spelling.

“Forced to improve their failing schools or lose their customers, most districts have risen to the challenge,” writes Innerst, who cites many more such case histories in Competing to Win–adding to the growing body of evidence that school choice helps not just the choosers, but also those children who remain in public schools.

For instance, in Milwaukee–home to the nation’s longest-running voucher experiment–public schools now offer private tutors to all children who haven’t been taught to read by the end of second grade. In an introduction to the Innerst report, former Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller also notes that the public schools have added early childhood education, before- and after-school programs, Montessori alternatives, and charter schools in response to the challenge of the expanding school-choice program.

However, the lead lawyer for the National Education Association, which opposed the A-Plus plan in Leon County Circuit Court, argued before Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. that how well school choice may work for families and for school reformers is beside the point. Smith heard none of the kind of evidence contained in the Innerst report before ruling against the program on March 14. (See “Judge Strikes Down Florida Vouchers,” School Reform News, May 2000.) The case will go next to the First District Court of Appeals.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].