- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Florida's school-voucher program for students at failing public schools has been a powerful incentive for academic improvement throughout the state, Gov. Jeb Bush told scholars and directors of the Hoover Institution yesterday.
In sweeping school reforms called "the A-plus plan," enacted after he became governor in 1999, the president's brother pushed through an option for state-funded vouchers worth about $4,000 for any student whose school earned an F grade twice in four years.
"That threat has been the greatest catalyst for improvement," the Republican governor said. "In 1999, there were 78 F schools in Florida. That number dropped to four the next year, and to zero the year after that."
About 500 children from the four failing schools in 1999 and 2000 opted for vouchers to attend other public or private schools, even private religious schools, Mr. Bush told the Hoover group, which is holding its three-day winter meeting for the board of directors at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel.
"Those 500 kids have become the greatest catalyst" for public school administrators and teachers to focus on improving reading and math achievement of all the state's 2.5 million schoolchildren, he said.
As a carrot, the state gives improving schools an additional $100 per student for teacher bonuses and other incentives. The voucher program, called "opportunity scholarships," is the stick to coax increased effort for student achievement, he said.
"The stick played a major role here, because unless you define failure, and unless success and failure have real consequences, success won't be achieved to the level desired," Mr. Bush said.
Florida has three voucher programs: one for students diagnosed with learning disabilities; another for economically disadvantaged students, funded through a $50 million corporate-tax-credit program; and opportunity scholarships for parents who want alternatives to chronically poor-performing schools, he said.
"Combined, these three programs are providing educational choice to over 25,000 students in our state. We believe in educational choice as a matter of principle, and we believe in school accountability as a matter of principle as well. And we believe they go hand in hand."
Mr. Bush said his administration also has forbidden "social promotion" policies whereby students were automatically promoted from grade to grade regardless of reading and mathematics ability.
"Third graders will not be promoted to fourth grade if they score at the lowest level on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test" in reading, Mr. Bush said. "This is because the research shows that through third grade, students learn to read, but from fourth grade on, students read to learn. They're going to be held back until we ensure they'll have a fighting chance to succeed."
Mr. Bush called social promotion "a cancer in our education system" that undermines the concept of achievement and a student's ability to learn.
"If it's thwarted to save Johnny's self-esteem, you're going to have greater problems down the line," he said. "It is also a cruel thing to do to a child. … Work gets harder in the higher grades, and students that have not yet mastered the basics have much less chance of learning new, advanced material."
Also, beginning this year under Florida's toughened graduation standards, high school students will not receive a diploma unless they have passed the 10th-grade level state test, Mr. Bush said.

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