How 750 Students Saved Florida

Pop quiz: under Florida’s robust voucher law, how many students have taken advantage of the program and moved from a failing public school to a private one?

I gave away the answer in the title: 750. To put this number in perspective, some 10,000 disabled Florida students use another school-choice program to attend private schools. Clint Bolick, a school choice advocate, brings some convincing numbers to the table in a Wall Street Journal editorial today.

Opponents of vouchers generally bring two logical objections to the debate, though the real roots of opposition are of course economic. The first is that allowing parents to spend public money on a religious education may violate the independence of church and state. Bolick discusses this objection in his article, but I'll refrain from doing so here. The second, more practical, objection is that vouchers are a self-selective program, and the students who use them generally have the most involved parents and are brighter than their classmates. Thus, by subtracting them from the public school, the argument goes, the remaining students are left to rot in their own disinterested, underfunded filth.

The first argument must be debated in legal and philosophical terms. The second is intensely practical. And the data shows that (a) there has not been a great exodus from the public system and (b) the schools that are threatened with vouchers respond with dramatic improvement. Teachers and administrators respond to economic stimulae; should we be surprised? Bolick weighs in:

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida's public schools now earn "A" grades, while a similar percentage scored "C's" when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

The radical increase in graduation rates is simply astounding. Take a moment to reread those stats.

The gains can be reasonably attributed to recent changes, since the period in question is four years, which is both the length of a high school tenure (when looking at graduation rates) and the length of a 3rd-grader's educational career (when looking at 3rd-grade reading levels).

Data like this completely cuts the feet from under anyone who would argue that the program should be discontinued because of effectiveness. With that argument shattered, the shills of the teachers' unions are left making their case using the language of secular ideology, though their opposition remains thoroughly predicated on the tenuous notion that their industry should be exempt from economic penalties and rewards.

Do "spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils" sound like liberal programs? Do they sound expensive? Not so: these are examples of steps taken by school districts, within their own budgets, for fear of the consequences of failure. If "consequences" for teachers sounds draconian and threatening, consider what the consequences are for the students of failing schools.

So 750 students have saved the Florida educational system. They have not condemned the public school system to ruin or neglect; in fact, that's exactly what they have saved it from.

Liberals and teachers who truly care about educating the disadvantaged youth need to make a decision. Will they stay with the leftist orthodoxy and defend the monopolistic economics of public-only education? Or will they take an open mind and pursue results for students rather than privileges for educators? This is a choice between students and teachers. The school-choice advocates are on the side of the students. Whose side are you on?

Posted by Chops at June 16, 2005 11:30 AM