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Monday, January 3, 2011

Vouching for vouchers


By Julie Delegal

Rick Scott could wear a nametag that says “Mickey Mouse,” but claiming something doesn’t make it so. Similarly, Scott’s plan to take tax money, channel it to private schools and call it something other than “publicly funded education” doesn’t make those dollars — or the programs they fund — any less public. “Education savings accounts,” if they come into being, will come into being as an act of state government. They will be formed using government dollars -- dollars that have left the hands of taxpayers for a common purpose.

Yet, incredibly, Scott’s team says that his new vouchers-for-all policy will elude the Supreme Court decision that struck down Jeb Bush’s smaller, less ambitious voucher program in 2006. The Gradebook, an online education blog for the St. Petersburg Times ( recently posted the highlights of Scott’s new education plan, written by Bush education foundation head, Patricia Levesque. One bullet point says that the “education savings account” (ESA) program “Effectively addresses Bush v Holmes exclusivity decision because the program is not part of the uniform public education system.”

That’s right folks, you read it right here: This voucher program, which seeks to use state tax dollars to fund education for Florida students, is not “publicly funded education,” because Patricia Levesque says it’s not. Beginning with that magic incantation, the reasoning follows that these vouchers, << ahem,>> these “education savings accounts,” are exempt from Florida law, including that pesky “high quality public education” clause in the Florida Constitution. What we will have, if this idea passes, is a situation where our tax dollars will be spent at private schools that simply don’t have to answer to the taxpayers.

“Oh, but we’re accountable,” private school officials will shout. They’ll profess to track their students using the Stanford 10, the “gold standard” for education testing in America. Catholic school officials will sing the merits of another norm-referenced test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. They will cite their percentile scores and expect citizens to be impressed, until citizens realize what those scores mean in relation to our public school-required FCAT: absolutely nothing.

Figures obtained from Duval County show that students who barely attained the cut-off score for passing the 10th grade reading FCAT, which is required for graduation, also scored a median 87th percentile on the norm-referenced test, according to the most recent data available. The implication is clear: We’ve got some good readers, readers who would be deemed success stories at private schools, who are nonetheless failing the FCAT.

For an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s instructive to look at the back-door program that sprang up when Bush’s front door to vouchers was slammed shut in the << Holmes >>case. The Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship for poor children similarly pretends that it doesn’t use public money. Corporate taxpayers simply divert their tax dollars away from the treasury and into a fund, which is run by the corporation, Step Up for Students. Step Up then pays private school tuition for eligible children. There once was a requirement for these private voucher schools (<< ahem, >> corporate tax scholarship schools) to administer tests comparable to those given at public schools, so that we could study the effectiveness of the “private” programs. Some schools receiving corporate tax credit scholarships administered the Stanford-based NRT, just as the public schools did for a number of years. Researchers found that the scholarship students tested did no better than their closest matched peers who remained in public schools.

Even though the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program has had eight years to build, and even though the study data was garnered during years six and seven, one might still argue that we need more studies. That’s too bad, because the legislature slashed the NRT for public schools, rendering any accountability measures for voucher schools utterly meaningless. This move leaves education advocates to wonder whether lawmakers don’t want any apples-to-apples comparisons for their private voucher school programs. After all, if private schools can do a better job educating our most vulnerable students, wouldn’t they want to demonstrate that on a common playing field?

National studies that do involve common measurements tell us that when student characteristics like race, ethnicity and eligibility for free and reduced lunch are taken into account, private schools don’t get better results than public schools on almost all measures ( The mantra we’ve heard in Florida over the past 12 years — “private is better” — just isn’t so, no matter how many politicians join the chant.

Politicians in Florida might try to argue that while tax credit funded education for our most vulnerable students may not be “better,” it’s the same. Since “the same” costs less, they’ll reason, it’s therefore “better.” But such an argument is flawed because the state’s commissioned studies did not compare the voucher program to public schools at large. Rather, the studies compared the performances of income-eligible public school students to income-eligible voucher students and found no difference in gains. That means that voucher student gains are only comparable to the gains of poor public school students in those sub-par schools that vouchers were supposed to save them from in the first place. So voucher students perform “the same” as those students who are still, to borrow the movement’s lingo, “trapped in failing schools.” The argument that vouchers save the state money is only valid if we’re willing to accept this “separate but equally awful” outcomes for poor students.

Children in school now will grow up to invent new industries, take our blood pressure readings, fix our cars, count our change, teach our grandchildren. Taxpayers deserve consistent, reliable means of measuring whether money spent educating Florida students is, in fact, educating them. Definitive accountability measures should be implemented for any schools receiving public money in any form. Instead of telling us what’s better, how about proving it?

1 comment:

  1. They don't want to prove that private schools are better and have actually gone out of their way to make sure it can't be proven! This is Not about student achievement, rather its about $$$. To think that Bush, Levesque or Rick Scott know what is best for Florida's students is indeed laughable. Same old story more dollars than Sense!