- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

For years, advocates of school vouchers for children otherwise confined to abysmally performing public schools have argued that the dose of competition provided by vouchers would improve the failing public schools. Now, a major study by the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute has provided much evidence that proves the point.

The study took an in-depth look at Florida’s A+ Program, which it describes as “perhaps the most aggressive and most controversial education-reform measure in the country.” That is because Florida’s A+ Program combines two of the most contentious education-reform policies: school vouchers and high-stakes testing.

All Florida public school students in grades three through 10 must take the state’s accountability exam, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Their performance on the FCAT has major consequences, both for themselves and their schools. Third-grade students, for example, cannot advance to the fourth grade without passing the FCAT’s reading portion; and high school students cannot graduate without passing the 10th-grade test. Each school, moreover, is graded on an A-to-F scale based on how well its students perform on the FCAT. All the students of any school that receives an F twice in any four-year period become eligible for school vouchers, which may be used at other public schools or private schools.

School-based grading for the FCAT began in the 1998-99 school year. The ingenious study established five categories of low-performing schools — the three most important of which will be explained below — based on their performance during the first four years of the exam.

The study included nine Voucher Eligible Schools, which had failed at least twice and were thus competing against private schools for students. It was hypothesized that these schools would have the greatest incentive for improvement. The study examined 50 Voucher Threatened Schools, which had failed at least once in the last three years. If any of these schools received an F based on the 2002-03 FCAT, their students would become eligible for vouchers. It was hypothesized that these schools had the second-strongest incentive to improve. The 63 Always D Schools comprised the third category. While not voucher-threatened, these poorly performing schools faced the prospect of becoming so if they received an F. Hence, they faced stronger incentives to improve than schools that had been performing better.

The results on the 2002-03 FCAT confirmed the hypotheses. The study found that Florida’s “low-performing schools are improving in direct proportion to the challenge they face from voucher competition.” Thus, the greatest improvement among the five categories was registered by schools that already faced voucher competition. The second-greatest improvement was achieved by schools that were threatened by vouchers if they received another F. Poorly performing schools that had never received an F did not register nearly the gains as those achieved by Voucher Eligible Schools or Voucher Threatened Schools. However, as hypothesized, the competitive pressures faced by Always D Schools were not nearly as stiff; nor did these schools have nearly as big an incentive to improve as the schools in the first two categories.

The study concluded that “voucher competition in Florida is leading to significant academic improvements in public schools.” This work essentially confirmed the results of Harvard’s Caroline Minter Hoxby, who has studied the impact of vouchers on Milwaukee’s public schools. The Manhattan Institute’s findings represent yet another argument that should convince the U.S. House to quickly pass legislation sponsored by Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the Government Reform Committee. Their desperately needed bill would provide school choice to thousands of low-income families in the nation’s capital, whose public school system has long ranked as one of the worst in the nation.

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