By Marcus Winters • National Review

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos likes to point to Florida’s education reforms from the Jeb Bush era as a potential model for expanding school choice. It’s a reasonable place to start given that adoption of these policies in the early 2000s coincided with outstanding educational improvements in the state. Statewide progress on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a test administered over time by the federal government, has far outstripped that of the nation and nearly all states.

But the new emphasis on Florida has put a target on the state’s back. Two recent pieces, one in the Washington Post, the other in the New York Times, take direct aim at the state’s two expansive school-voucher policies. Both stories seek to highlight the limitations of the school-choice reforms. Neither is convincing. And both are often highly misleading.

In the Post, reporter Emma Brown takes up Florida’s corporate tax-credit program, which offers vouchers worth up to $5,886 for students from households with income below 260 percent of the federal poverty line. Last year nearly 100,000 students used scholarship, or voucher. If it were a school district, it would be about the size of Baltimore’s.

Brown’s mischaracterization of the existing evidence on the corporate tax-credit program is exceptional. She waves her hand at positive findings. She mentions almost in passing that there is strong evidence that competition from the tax-credit scholarship program has led to substantial improvements in Florida’s public schools. And then she contorts herself to interpret in the worst light possible the little existing evidence on the impact of the scholarships on students who use them to attend private school.

The program was studied for years by David Figlio, a universally respected economist and the incoming dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Because of differences in the tests that they take, Figlio is not able to provide clear evidence on the impact of attending a private school with a tax-credit scholarship compared to the performance of students attending Florida public schools. What he can conclude, as Brown points out, is that participating students are making gains equal to the national average.

This finding, however, is more of a story than Brown admits. Given that the average student using a corporate tax-credit scholarship is significantly more disadvantaged than the average student nationwide, keeping pace with national gains is an impressive accomplishment. Participating students come from low-income households and tend to be among the lowest-performing students within the state’s lowest-performing public schools. On average, students with similar profiles tend to show below-average gains on standardized tests each year.

Instead of focusing on this achievement, Brown highlights variation between private schools, citing an “enormous range” in performance to cast doubt on the program. While notable, the range isn’t large enough to justify her alarm. (The Figlio report refers to the variation in school performance as “non-trivial.”) It is also not at all surprising. Of course the quality of private schools varies. It does among public schools as well. A lot. The difference is that students have a clear path to exit private schools, and Figlio’s work shows that students struggling in the private schools do tend (understandably) to leave them.

Where Brown in her Post article mischaracterizes evidence to instill doubt, Dana Goldstein, the author of the Times article, simply tries to create a problem out of thin air.

Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities offers them grants to attend private schools, in an amount equal to either the private school’s tuition or what their public school would have paid to educate them — whichever is less.

Goldstein focuses on the fact that students who use a McKay voucher to attend a private school forfeit their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that public schools provide free and appropriate educational services to students with disabilities. Under IDEA, students with disabilities receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that lays out all of the services that the school is required to provide to students to keep them on a successful academic path.

Goldstein tells us that “legal experts say parents who use the vouchers are largely unaware” of the fact that they’d forfeited these rights — an extraordinary statement given that legal experts generally know more about the law than what a large group of parents know about their legal protections. Goldstein is less impressed by an e-mail she quotes from a spokesman from the Florida Department of Education saying that it has received “very few complaints” from disgruntled McKay parents that they didn’t understand they had given up their IEP protections. Are we to think that the department is lying? For what it’s worth, parents of students with disabilities, particularly those who were knowledgeable and motivated enough to take advantage of a voucher program, do not have a reputation for keeping displeasure to themselves.

Perhaps more parents don’t complain about losing their legal protections in a private school because they weren’t so helpful at their public school either. In an admittedly dated Manhattan Institute survey of parents who at the time were either participating in McKay or had formerly participated, only about a third of respondents said that their previous public school provided all of the services that were required under their child’s IEP.

What is never made clear in the Times story is that students who use a McKay scholarship to attend a private school don’t give up their rights under IDEA in perpetuity. They can always go back into the public school system and have those rights reinstated. Those who stay in private schools do so presumably because they prefer the services those schools offer.

Unfortunately, we have no real research evaluating whether students using a McKay voucher to attend a private school do better academically than they would have in a traditional public school. However, my research shows that competition from McKay led to improved performance for students with disabilities attending the state’s public schools.

The real story in Florida is about how a state went from the bottom on most measures of educational outcomes in the early 2000s to scoring at about the national average today. Florida’s public schools have made enormous gains since the adoption of these and other reforms. Absent research to the contrary — or perhaps an axe to grind — existing work suggests that the school-choice programs are an important part of the story.

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