- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

National Education Association President Bob Chase wasted no time in attacking President George W. Bush's education reform plan. "The plan unveiled today relies on a political gimmick," said Mr. Chase, referring to its modest voucher component which kicks in only after three years of a public school's complete failure.
Education establishment dogma holds that all voucher programs cannibalize public schools by giving students options to learn elsewhere. "Vouchers will draw away critical financial resources, the best students, the most engaged parents, and public support," exclaims the National School Board Association in a compilation of boilerplate arguments against vouchers.
Yet mounting evidence shows that vouchers actually provide public schools with the proper motivation to improve.
The Manhattan Institute and the Program for Education Policy Governance at Harvard University released a rigorous empirical study of Florida's A-Plus Plan for Education, which features a "last resort" voucher option similar to Mr. Bush's plan.
(Only students in chronically failing schools are offered vouchers.)
The study's author, Dr. Jay Greene, crunched two years of Florida test score data and found a "voucher gain," in the academic performance of students still in the public schools. Says Mr. Greene, "The evidence in this report shows that even the prospect of vouchers inspires significant improvement in public schools."
Here's the evidence. In July of 1999, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law known as The A+ Plan for Education. Under that plan, the state assigned each school a letter grade based on its students' performances on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT).
Schools earning F's would be given more money and forced to develop a plan for improvement. Students in schools that earn F's in any two years in a four year period, would be free to transfer to another public school or to take a $3,400 voucher to use at a private school.
That fall, two failing elementary schools saw 53 students walk out the door with vouchers in hand and another 85 transfer to better public schools. (The law retroactively set the testing period to 1997-1998, thus these two schools earned F's in that academic year and again in 1998-1999). In total, 78 Florida schools earned F's for the 1998-1999 academic year, a dismal performance that, if repeated, would have meant the freeing of 2000 students the following term. Yet the next year all 78 of these schools managed to improve student performance, earning a D or better. (Meanwhile, the number of A schools increased from 203 to 551.)
On the face, it appears that school choice helped Florida's worst public schools improve. Yet correlation does not imply cause, which is where Mr. Greene's study comes in. He wanted to test whether the academic improvements stemmed from vouchers, or from other factors. Mr. Greene reasoned that if the threat of losing students to vouchers prompts schools to improve, then schools earning F's in any given year ought to show more improvement than other schools. Schools earning passing grades risked only embarrassment or nothing at all if student performance remained stagnant or even declined. That's exactly what he found. Writes Mr. Greene, "Schools that received F grades in 1998-1999 experienced increases in test scores that were more than twice as large as those experienced by schools with higher state grades."
Mr. Greene considered other explanations for the schools' improvement, including statistical artifacts such as regression to the mean, and the deliberate manipulation of test scores. But he found little empirical support for these explanations. "It appears as if two forces were in effect to motivate schools to improve," writes Mr. Greene. "Schools had some motivation to improve simply to avoid the embarrassment of low FCAT scores. This motivation operated across all state-assigned grades. But schools with F scores had a second and very strong incentive to improve to avoid vouchers." This second incentive produced the "voucher gain."
NEA's Mr. Chase assails Mr. Bush for failing to "invest in action that produces real results, such as reducing class size," among other things. Yet Mr. Greene reports that Florida's voucher gains for math and writing scores are larger than the gains a Tennessee study found for reducing class size from an average of 25 students to 17 students. This news didn't come a day too soon, as support on the Hill for the voucher component of Mr. Bush's plan is soft. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently told an audience of school board members that the voucher component is "a fractional part of the program," signaling, yet again, a willingness to back off that which most worries the educational establishment.
Mr. Greene's study shows that while it may be "fractional" (which of course it is, since it isn't the entire plan), it's perhaps the most important fraction, at least if we want both students and public schools to succeed.

Michael W. Lynch is Washington editor of Reason magazine.

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