- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

A new study of statewide education reforms created by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may add extra muscle to a similar national plan proposed by his brother, President Bush, who has called for more freedom and accountability along with consequences for failure.

Republican Gov. Bush's A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program, which includes a yearly state achievement test and the promise of vouchers for students in failing schools, has spurred low-performing schools to improve significantly, the study concluded.

In fact, the prospect of students receiving the publicly funded scholarships, known to many as vouchers, forced the worst schools to make some of the biggest gains on state-mandated achievement tests, according to the report, which was released yesterday by the New York-based Manhattan Institute.

"The evidence is that the incentives work exactly as people expect," said Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay P. Greene, who conducted the Florida research. "It does inspire them to improve and they do perform better than other schools around the state."

Education reform remains a central issue for the president and for the nation. Half of the people surveyed in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll released this week said improving education should be a top priority for the Bush administration.

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, says Mr. Greene's report will have a significant impact as the new Congress works to improve education.

"The centerpiece of President Bush's education proposal is accountability. But you can't have real accountability if there aren't real consequences for chronic failure," Mr. Boehner said.

"In both the president's plan and the Florida A-Plus system, choice is only included as a last resort a means of reinforcing accountability and sparking reform in schools that otherwise will not teach," he said. "In both the president's plan and the Florida A-Plus system, schools that improve are rewarded for their efforts."

Under Gov. Bush's closely watched and much-criticized program, which began two years ago, each public school in Florida receives a letter grade based on the percentage of students receiving passing scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (FCAT). The tests measure student performance annually in reading, math and writing. Students at schools that receive two failing grades in four years become eligible for vouchers that they can use to attend private or higher-performing public schools.

Currently, 50 students from two schools in Escambia County in the Panhandle region of the state are using the vouchers to attend mostly private schools. Last year, with more emphasis on achievement and extra funds directed at helping students improve, no Florida school received a second "F" grade, making no children eligible for vouchers.

Florida Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist praised the hard work of his state's teachers for the strong improvements. Mr. Crist, who is among several state education chiefs who have met with the president to discuss his education package, said the research could serve to help Mr. Bush make his case to Congress that school choice spurs results.

"It think that this report is very timely in terms of encouraging even greater support than may have earlier existed," he said. "School choice is something that introduced competition into the education field and it ultimately results in a benefit to our children in their learning process."

Florida students begin taking the latest round of state tests this month.

Their progress last year, noted Mr. Greene, was significant. In reading, students in A-grade schools raised their scores by 1.90 points, while F schools increased scores by 17.59 points. In math, scores at A-grade schools went up 11.02 points, while F-school scores rose by 25.66 points. Both tests are graded on a 100-500 scale.

"The larger improvements achieved by schools that had received an F and were in danger of having vouchers offered to their students are all statistically significant," said Mr. Greene, a research associate at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

He has conducted research of the nation's two other voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and dubs the Florida plan "a school accountability system with teeth."

Some educators, however, have been critical of the Florida governor's methods for achieving results. They say teachers in low-performing schools with high percentages of poor children have been unfairly singled out because to improve even slightly, they have to work much harder than their peers who teach in better and wealthier schools where grades are normally higher.

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