In Florida, lessons on vouchers

New study finds that the worst schools are turning around under a 'school choice' reform.

Dixon Elementary had been tagged one of the worst schools in Florida. Few of its students could get through a grade-level book. Most couldn't write a basic paragraph.

Just two years later, achievement is no longer a stranger at this brick school sandwiched between four Pensacola housing projects. Ninety-four percent of its students passed Florida's standardized writing test, up from 28 percent in 1999. Reading scores doubled.

Why the turnaround? Some reformers - especially those who say public schools have an unhealthy monopoly on education - think they know the answer: vouchers.

Whether vouchers will be a hammer that ultimately strengthens or destroys the nation's public schools is one of the great unresolved debates of education reform. The answer could determine not only Florida's commitment to "school choice," but perhaps even President Bush's education proposals, which take Florida as a model.

As more cities and states experiment with vouchers and other forms of school choice, efforts to assess their impact on public schools are intensifying. Here in Pensacola, Dixon Elementary lost 26 students - who opted to switch to better-performing schools at taxpayer expense - after it received an F rating (on the basis of Florida's statewide tests). That's only about 5 percent of its student body, but if the school didn't improve, it risked losing more with each passing year.

But it did improve, and Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, thinks "the voucher effect" is a big part of the reason. In a report to be issued today, he argues that Dixon and 77 other Florida schools receiving at least one F rating - meaning one more F and their students could leave - showed the most dramatic improvement. The lowest D-rated schools improved, too, but not as much as the F schools, the study shows.

The threat of vouchers, he says, proved to be a strong motivator. "This shows that public schools can respond to the challenge. It's encouraging that they can improve."

The study, conducted for Florida's education department, sees the state's three-year-old school-accountability system as a prod to all low-performing schools. Moreover, students at those schools showed improvement not only on Florida tests, but also on a nationally recognized standardized test, buttressing the evidence of actual academic gain.

"Having resources and having good people may not be enough," says Greene. "You may need accountability to focus everyone's attention."

But there are many, including Dixon Elementary's own principal, who discount the voucher effect. Pinning down what, exactly, starts a school's turnaround is an inexact science, and other factors such as greater funding may emerge as more important, critics say. Even if test scores rise in some schools threatened with the voucher hammer, experts caution against assuming that good results can be expected if the experiment widens.

There are questions, too, about whether public schools will respond to competition the same way businesses do. Rather than focusing on improving the product, schools may take only symbolic steps. They also may be hampered by constraints such as the inability to fire poor teachers.

"If test scores are better, that's fine, but schools are going to focus on that," says Rick Hess, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "That's not the same effect as when General Motors actually produces a better car for the same money."

The debate will no doubt continue, as voucher programs confront legal challenges and as at least a dozen state legislatures this year debate vouchers or tax credits.

Here in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, student test scores rose significantly since Florida's A-Plus system began in 1998. No schools in the district were subject to vouchers last year, and 83 percent received a grade of C or better. One-quarter earned an A. The previous year, just one school had an A rating. Improvements, advocates say, have come in several forms: longer class periods for reading and math, extended school days at least twice a week, better transportation for kids whose families move frequently but would like to stay in the same school.

To Carol Innerst, who did a report on Florida schools' responses for the conservative Institute for Justice, the positive effects of pressure seem clear. "Competition is really forcing complacent schools to say, 'We have to be more responsive,' " she says. "It is clear that it really scared them."

Judy Ladner, Dixon's principal, sees things differently. After six years in the job, she is well-acquainted with the challenges of teaching in a school where all the children qualify for free lunches, and where she and her staff visit children's homes regularly to talk with parents who have no phone.

Ms. Ladner says the school started looking several years ago for ways to help students read better, eventually settling on a program that emphasizes phonics and carefully scripted teaching methods. They adopted a writing program that produced strong results at a nearby school. Dixon teachers also started staying with their classes more than one year.

If anything, more funding - not the threat of vouchers - has made the extra difference, she says. The school obtained a number of grants from the state.

With all the emphasis on reading and writing, Dixon students are doing less science, social studies, and art, Ladner says. "Lots of practice tests, working very hard to know how to take tests," and more one-on-one instruction take precedence.

She is pleased with her school's progress - but says vouchers weren't the way to achieve it. "Would it have happened without vouchers? Yes, because we were on that track before all of that ever came out. We were headed in that direction."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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