Education Reform in Florida: A Model for Texas to Build On

By Matthew Ladner

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will return to Texas this week to testify before the Texas legislature on the Florida’s comprehensive and parental choice driven education reform strategy. The chart below shows why our policymakers and educators should carefully study Florida’s academic success.

Stanford, Harvard and the University of Munich academic researchers recently examined the progress of state public education systems. The researchers found a great deal variation between American states themselves: some have been making academic progress at a much faster rate than others. In a most illuminating chart, the authors plotted out combined average annual state academic gains on NAEP against their increase in spending per pupil.

Before you rush to find Texas, a few notes on what you are looking at- along the horizontal axis is the inflation adjusted spending per pupil increase in the public school system between 1990 to 2009. The vertical axis plots state improvement on the Nation’s Report Card exams. Since these are average annual gains over almost a two decade period, differences that appear small on the chart can make a big difference to real students.

Note first the worst performing states. Wyoming, with approximately a $6,000 per student increase in spending banked academic gains below that of the average state. New York did the same with spending to get only average improvement.

Those suing the state of Texas yet again for more school funding run a tremendous risk of achieving a similar poor result in the Lone Star State if they were to prevail. Texas achieved larger gains than either Wyoming or New York while increasing spending only one third as much. As the authors note in the chart title: money is not the answer.

People could argue about which state does the worst in the chart, but the best state is clear: Florida. Florida has both the nation’s smallest increase in spending per pupil and the nearly the nation’s largest academic gains. Florida turns in the most impressive performance by a wide margin in terms of improving bang for the buck in the public school system.

When Governor Bush took office, the Nation’s Report Card revealed Florida to be saddled with one of the lowest performing school systems in the nation. Like Texas, Florida had just about every K-12 challenge: explosive population growth, the full gamut of both inner-city and rural school issues.  Florida and Texas also educate large numbers of foreign born students. Florida, like Texas, has a majority of low-income students and a “majority minority” student demographic profile.

Florida’s reform package included a large dose of parental choice. Texas lawmakers passed a public charter school law a year earlier than Florida, but unfortunately did not match the quality of Florida’s law. Today Florida has more public charter schools and more public charter school students than Texas despite the fact that Texas has almost twice as many K-12 students as Florida.

Florida lawmakers also passed the largest private school choice programs in the country. The Step Up for Students Tax Credit is the nation’s largest private choice program- allowing the parents of 50,000 Florida children to select a school that best meets the needs of their children. An independent program evaluation from Northwestern University has found greater academic gains and a positive competitive impact on the public schools.

Florida reformers also created the nation’s largest education scholarship program. The McKay Scholarship Program allows every child with a disability to choose a public or private school of their choice with the full state financial support following the child.

The McKay Program has been statewide since 2001, and it destroys a number of school choice myths. The myth-makers say that private schools won’t take difficult to educate children. Today however over 1,000 Florida private schools educate over 26,000 special needs children. The opponents of parental choice have claimed for decades that education scholarships will harm public schools. The Nation’s Report Card reveals that students with disabilities in Florida public schools rank among the nation’s leaders in academic gains.

Lawmakers around the nation have studied the Florida reforms as a model and fashioned policies in hope of improving the academic skills and knowledge of their students. Governor Bush, a Houston native and University of Texas at Austin graduate took the lead in pushing reform in his adopted state.

Texas policymakers should regard Florida’s reforms as a floor rather than a ceiling in crafting their strategy for improving public education. If a single Texan can make this much of a difference in Florida, I for one am anxious to see what a whole state of Texans can do in Texas. With a strong combination of sound policy and moral courage, the sky is the limit.

Matthew Ladner is the Director of State Projects Alliance for School Choice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
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