(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
A new study by David Figlio links higher gains among Florida public schools with higher levels of competition from the Step Up for Students tax credit program. You can read the St. Pete Times story by Ron Matus here. Matus wrote:
Figlio emphasized the boost was significant, but modest.
“Anybody looking for a silver bullet has to keep looking,” he said. “What we find is certainly positive and statistically strong, but it’s not like public schools are revolutionizing overnight because of this, either.”
So it turns out that the public school gains associated with a state program with an initial statewide cap of $50m in a state with a multi-billion dollar public school budget were statistically significant but modest. Would it be reasonable to expect anything more from such a modest program? I suggest we scale this public school improvement program up to say a cool billion per year and then measure the impact.
My favorite line in the story comes from a hostile academic:
Another researcher remained skeptical. Stanford labor economist Martin Carnoy, who has studied the impact of vouchers and reviewed the latest study, said Figlio and Hart did “an honest job with the data.”
“But here is the real story: even after several years the effect size is TINY,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They are so small that even small downside effects would nullify them, leaving vouchers as mainly an ideological exercise.”
This is one of the more unintentionally hilarious statements I have read in some time. The field of education reform battle is covered with the dead bodies of reforms that show nothing in the way of a statistically significant impact. Increasing per pupil funding, Head Start, teacher certification, almost everything studied by the “What Works” clearinghouse so far, etc. All of these failures cost a great deal of money and deliver nothing in the way of sustained academic gains.
So the state of Florida passes a small law that actually saves the state money and shows a statistically significant and small result of improving public schools, and we are supposed to wring our hands and despair because something bad could come along and nullify the gains? Ummmmm, no.
First of all, nothing bad did come along and nullify the gains- quite the opposite. This program was only a part of the strategy to increase parental choice in Florida. That strategy also includes charter schools, McKay vouchers and virtual schooling- all of which either already are or soon will be much larger programs than Step Up for Students.
Second, the parental choice strategy was itself a part of a larger effort to improve Florida public schools. Parental choice reinforced the central K-12 reform of grading schools A-F. Transparency, rewards for success, consequences for failure formed the core of the Florida strategy.
Did it work?
The Step Up for Students program played a contributing role in Florida’s symphony of success rather than “destroying public education.” This is what Milton Friedman argued all along. Bravo- the obvious conclusion to draw is to push both parental choice and public school reform still further in Florida and elsewhere.