Dumbing Down for Dollars: A Tale of Two Floridas

Florida students in government-run schools are being challenged to improve their math and reading performance significantly over the next six years. But some students are being held to higher standards than others depending on their race.

The State Board of Education recently voted that by 2018, 74 percent of black students, 81 percent of Hispanic students, 88 percent of white students, and 90 percent of Asian students need to be reading at grade level.

Those new standards are in response to the U.S Department of Education’s requirement that the percentage of student sub-groups that are not proficient in reading and math be halved.

“As a matter of philosophy … I think we should have the same goal for all categories of our citizenry,” said board member John Padget. “Are we happy with the signal that this sends?” Board member Roberto Martinez added, “Should an Asian child and an Hispanic child be held to the same standard down the road? The answer is, yes”

This is the preferred vision of politicians and bureaucrats, and not just ones in Florida—equal opportunity and expectations for some but not others. But another vision of equal educational opportunity for all exists in Florida now—not some point down an undefined road.

The state of education in Florida in the late 1990’s is reminiscent of the status quo in too many states today. “A decade ago, Florida schools were failing and ranked near the bottom in nearly every national survey. More than half of the state’s public school students were not reading or performing math at grade level,” according to former Governor Jeb Bush. “Mediocrity was tolerated and excuses were more common than accountability. Back then, schools tracked library books better than students’ progress and poor performance in schools produced a round-robin of blame.”

A combination of reforms beginning in 1998 make up what is commonly referred to as the “Florida Formula,” namely, high academic standards, grading schools on an A to F scale, standardized assessment and measurement, data-based accountability, effective teaching, outcome-based funding, and school choice.

Florida’s corporate tax credit scholarship program is currently helping more than 40,000 low-income students statewide attend non-government schools of their parents’ choice. Another 24,000 students with special needs are also attending non-government schools that meet their needs through the McKay Scholarship Program. Students in failing government-run schools can also transfer to better ones through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Parents of students in failing schools who prefer a non-government option can use the tax credit scholarship program.

Allowing all children, regardless of their address, family income, or race, to attend schools that work best for them…well…just works overall.

The transformation in achievement across student sub-groups in just one decade “ranks as perhaps the greatest public policy success story of the past decade,” as the Foundation for Florida’s Future explains: “Once near the bottom of the pack on national tests, Florida‘s students are racing to the top, proving that all children can learn when given the right opportunity. In 1998, Florida students scored at the bottom of the nation in student achievement. 47 percent of Florida’s fourth-grade students were functionally illiterate.” (See p. 1). By 2009, the fruits of the Florida Formula were evident. Florida’s fourth grade Hispanic students were reading as well or better than the statewide average of all students in 21 states. Meanwhile, African-American fourth graders were reading as well or better than the statewide average in eight states. (See p. 2)

Florida politicians blame new U.S. Department of Education achievement mandates for their decision to institutionalize achievement gaps. Leaving aside the fact that they could just say “No,” the same education department singled out Florida as one of only three states in 2009 that successfully narrowed the black/white achievement gap in reading and math—and it has remained one of the few states to do so since with Hispanic students as well. (See here and here, for example.)

This is what happens when parents are in charge of their children’s education. Dumbing down standards for dollars is what happens when politicians and bureaucrats run the show.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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