Why Does Florida’s Voucher Crowd Oppose Accountability to Taxpayers?

Last week’s Orlando Sentinel editorial brought to light for Floridians the fact that private schools which receive taxpayer-funded vouchers aren’t held to the same accountability standards as are public schools. That could change as both governor Rick Scott and incoming education commissioner Tony Bennett think they should.

When it comes to school vouchers, we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Gov. Rick Scott.

Remember his “education savings account” plan? Cloaked in a euphemistic Trojan horse, his “vouchers for all” gambit would have siphoned off withering public school resources. A reckless non-starter.

Yet in his 2013 legislative wish list, Scott struck a more reasonable tone, saying private schools that accept money under the state’s limited voucher program should take the same standardized tests that public schools use to assess students.

He’s right. We’ve been supporters of the state’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides low-income children with the opportunity to attend private school.

Christened in 2001, the program provides vouchers up to $4,335 to students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Funding comes from corporate kick-ins, which receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit.

But we also believe in accountability when public money is being funneled into private hands. Other states already recognize the wisdom of judging students by the same yardstick.

With Florida preparing to drop the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for a new test based on new standards, this is an ideal time for private schools that enroll these students to prove they’re hitting the marks Florida sets for public schools.

Scott wants to include voucher students when the new Common Core standards and tests — successors to the FCAT — debut in the 2014-15.

“Ultimately, everybody is going to Common Core,” he said.

A no-brainer idea that incoming Education Commissioner Tony Bennett embraces, telling the Sentinel that it’s “reasonable to expect all schools that receive public funds to be held to the same level of accountability.”

Florida’s program — the nation’s largest of its kind — has followed a more convoluted path. Voucher students took a nationally normed test like the Stanford Achievement Test. An independent researcher then distilled the results and correlated the results to FCAT students. A bit of a Rube Goldberg approach that made it difficult for parents to assess academic achievement when comparing public to private schools.

Give Scott credit for finally realizing that a common test scraps a needless exercise, while also giving private schools an extra measure of credibility. If taxpayers are footing the bill — and if private schools truly are doing the job — schools should be eager to showcase their results, as public schools must.

Not so fast says the director of Step Up for Students, the Florida non-profit which oversees the state’s tax credit scholarship fund. Writing critically a Tampa Bay Times editorial which mirrored the Sentinel’s, Jon East writes:

Under Florida’s scholarship program, students are required to take nationally norm-referenced tests approved by the state Department of Education. More than two-thirds take the Stanford Achievement Test. Another fifth, which comprises mainly the Catholic schools, take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The test-score gains are then reported publicly each year by an independent researcher, respected Northwestern University professor David Figlio. Starting this year, those gains are also reported for every school with at least 30 students who have current- and prior-year test scores. The validity of these testing instruments is not really in dispute, which is why it is more than a little disconcerting that their results have been scarcely mentioned. The state’s leading newspaper managed to write an entire editorial directive, “Holding voucher schools to account is overdue,” without a single reference.

East’s use of Figlio as his reference is predictable. The study East cites is Figlio’s second voucher study that he’s been commissioned to generate for Florida’s Office of Public Policy Analysis and Government Accountability in the past two years. His 2011 report can be found via this link. It is Figlio’s 2012 report which East quotes – and a stunning quote it was. Using what East refers to as “concordance” Figlio concluded:

“A cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the … scholarship program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide.”

For Figlio  to “suggest” such a relationship exists between vouchers and public school perormance unmasks his bias and reveals why Easy would put such stock in his, um, research. What it still doesn’t reveal is why East is opposed to holding his voucher schools to the same accountability standards as public schools.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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