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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Florida's insidious plan to defund public education

From the Jacksonville Ledger and Folio

by Julie Delegal

Conservative operative Adam Hollingsworth, defending the proposed budget that slashes $1.75 billion from public education, insists that public schools are only one part of a spectrum of “choices” available to students in Florida. On a recent First Coast Connect radio show with Melissa Ross, Hollingsworth went on to promote virtual-school, private voucher schools and charter schools as cheaper, viable choices for students. At this writing, the governor’s universal vouchers or “education savings accounts” are flying through the legislature. But Hollingsworth didn’t tell listeners that for the vast majority of students who attend charters and voucher schools, exercising “choice” simply does not benefit them academically.

Research shows that the “choice and competition movement” is the quintessential tale of the “Emperor Who Has No Clothes” – or at best, a very scantily clad emperor. One prominent and comprehensive study comes from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO looked at student performance in charter schools operating in 16 different states. Here are the pertinent few sentences directly quoted from the executive summary of the 2009 study:

“The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

The CREDO authors acknowledge that the picture varies greatly state by state, and, in all fairness, it’s worth mentioning which side of the axis Florida’s charter schools fall on: “States that demonstrated lower average charter school student growth than their peers in traditional schools included: Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas.” And the picture’s not much brighter for Florida’s voucher schools, either. Two years of data were analyzed by Northwestern University Economics Professor David Figlio. Dr. Figlio looked at norm referenced test score gains in order to compare voucher students with their closest matched peers, socio-economically speaking, who remained in traditional public schools. He found that the voucher students didn’t do any better, in terms of test score gains, than their cohorts.

The immediate spin from voucher advocates was to focus on how much money the state was saving by educating our poorest children using voucher funding, which at the time amounted to about half of the per-pupil allotment for public school students. This cost analysis shifted attention away from the fact that the comparison didn’t measure voucher schools against all public schools, but against the poorest – and typically poorest performing — public schools. In other words, voucher schools don’t do “as well” as public schools at large. They do only “as well” as our poorest schools, and voucher consumers deserve to know that fact.

In my ongoing discussions with Jon East, spokesperson for the taxpayer-funded Florida voucher program Step Up for Students, he insists that there’s more to voucher schools than test scores. He’ll go on and on about how parents “feel better” enrolling their children in private schools, and that test scores shouldn’t be the only indicator of success. (Jon, where were you last year when hundreds of thousands of public school parents were saying the very same thing, as we worked to get the teacher-punishing SB 6 vetoed?)

Conservatives seem to be of two minds when it comes to test scores: they hold them out as the end-all-be-all when it comes to teacher pay-for-performance and “failing” public schools. But when it comes to the vast number of minority families who enroll their children in voucher schools, they turn a blind eye to outcome measures. We’re getting to the point where Florida is creating a separate, unequal subsystem of publicly-funded education, because we aren’t holding voucher schools to the same standards as public schools.

Look at the evidence: After Professor Figlio delivered his not-so-sunny research results on the voucher program in 2009, the Florida Legislature did away with any apples-to-apples method of comparing voucher schools to public schools in future years. Now — short of a change in the law that would demand apples-to-apples comparisons — we can never compare voucher schools’ performance to public schools again. And that’s another fact that voucher consumers deserve to know. My repeated attempts to lay bare the facts about voucher schools have been met with vitriol, including a letter to the editor of FolioWeekly by one medical doctor who wrote something to the effect of “I don’t care what the studies say.” (Remind me never to seek medical advice from him.)

I can’t say I wasn’t warned that people would react vehemently and emotionally to any statements that purport to question the “sacred cow” that school vouchers have become. Years ago, veteran education advocates told me two things: First, the conservatives in the Florida legislature like vouchers because they give them an “out” from appropriately funding the public schools (to wit, Mr. Hollingsworth’s position above). Second, the non-conservatives who remain in the legislature (yes, there are a few, and they are mostly African-American lawmakers) have looked to “choice” as a promising alternative for minority children at poor, struggling schools. Will they change their minds now that it’s clear that in Florida, choice generally does not benefit students? Or will Floridians continue to turn a blind eye to separate-but-equally-mediocre voucher schools?

State officials are using “choice” as a hammer to close struggling public schools while de-funding them at the same time here in Jacksonville, their voucher stronghold. It’s a continuous two-step dance that former Gov. Jeb Bush taught current lawmakers: de-fund public schools under a punitive, high-stakes testing framework to catalyze failure for our most vulnerable students, to whom “choice” can then easily be peddled; then use “choice” as an excuse for de-funding public education, again, at the expense of our most vulnerable students, while hoping everyone ignores the research. Will consumers of the “choice and competition” movement in Florida get wise to this insidious self-fulfilling wrecking ball before Tallahassee does any more damage to public education?

Choice proponents can shoot messengers like me all they want. It doesn’t change the fact that Florida’s original choice and competition emperor has no clothes. After more than a decade, he’s still betting no one will catch on. – Julie Delegal (Courtesy of FolioWeekly)’s-failed-education-experiment/

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