Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.

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Lawsuit Losers’ Ostrich Act

August 17, 2016
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Anti-school choice plaintiffs pretending that the court didn’t reject their arguments on the merits.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As I reported on Tuesday, a Florida appellate court threw out a challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. In response, one of the plaintiff groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), published a disingenuous and factually challenged blog post whining about the case being dismissed and pretending that the court didn’t actually address the merits of the case. I’ll address their assertions in order:

A Florida court just threw out an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations. As disappointing as that outcome is, it’s doubly frustrating to see a second Sunshine State court fail to even consider the merits of the case.

The program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that help students attend any private school, religious or secular, so that’s not quite an accurate description of the program.

Moreover, as I will explain below, the court did consider the merits of the case. Although courts often avoid addressing the merits of a case when rejecting the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case, here the court directly addressed the central issues in the process of dismissing the case on standing.

In case you’re not familiar with tuition tax credits, they are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. It’s essentially a way to launder government funds through a private entity.

What an odd use of scare quotes. Are these somehow not scholarships? Let’s consult the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines a “scholarship” as “an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student’s education.” So yes, AU scare quotes notwithstanding, these are bona fide scholarships.

But are they “laundered government funds”? According to the unanimous Florida appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and every state supreme court to address the question, the answer is a resounding “No.” The courts all held that a private individual or corporation’s money is their own, and not the government’s, until the government has actually collected it. When people keep their own money through tax deductions, tax credits, or tax exemptions, it remains exactly that: their own money.

Does the AU believe that all churches run on “laundered government money” because their donors receive tax deductions or because they receive 100% property tax exemptions? No? Interesting.

The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “no-aid” clause, which says: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Again, as the court ruled, it’s not government money, so the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment (“no-aid” clause) is not implicated. Moreover, the percentage of schools that are religious versus secular is constitutionally irrelevant. The law is religiously neutral. What matters is only that families may choose either religious or secular schools. It makes no constitutional difference whether the majority select one type or the other, or whether the market (responding to demand) supplies more of one type or another.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected AU’s religious bean counting, including in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision more than a decade ago:

Respondents and Justice Souter claim that even if we do not focus on the number of participating schools that are religious schools, we should attach constitutional significance to the fact that 96% of scholarship recipients have enrolled in religious schools. They claim that this alone proves parents lack genuine choice, even if no parent has ever said so. We need not consider this argument in detail, since it was flatly rejected in Mueller, where we found it irrelevant that 96% of parents taking deductions for tuition expenses paid tuition at religious schools. Indeed, we have recently found it irrelevant even to the constitutionality of a direct aid program that a vast majority of program benefits went to religious schools. See Agostini, 521 U.S., at 229 (“Nor are we willing to conclude that the constitutionality of an aid program depends on the number of sectarian school students who happen to receive the otherwise neutral aid” (citing Mueller, 463 U.S., at 401)); see also Mitchell, 530 U.S., at 812, n. 6 (plurality opinion) (“[Agostini] held that the proportion of aid benefiting students at religious schools pursuant to a neutral program involving private choices was irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry”); id., at 848 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (same) (quoting Agostini, supra, at 229). The constitutionality of a neutral educational aid program simply does not turn on whether and why, in a particular area, at a particular time, most private schools are run by religious organizations, or most recipients choose to use the aid at a religious school. As we said in Mueller, “[s]uch an approach would scarcely provide the certainty that this field stands in need of, nor can we perceive principled standards by which such statistical evidence might be evaluated.” 463 U.S., at 401. [emphasis added]

The SCOTUS majority goes on to note that the other side’s obsession over how many private schools have a religious affiliation ignores that they are but a tiny slice of all the available school choices, including the secular district schools that the vast majority of students attend. Students do not lack secular options.

Returning to the AU blog post, the author claims:

The program also violates the state constitution by taking money away from public schools.

No, the appellate court specifically and repeatedly rejected this argument, noting that any reduction in aid to the district schools is entirely speculative. As the appellate court detailed at length, the AU and their allies proved unable time and time again to demonstrate any harm that the district schools incur from the scholarship program.

Despite those problems, two Florida courts have now kicked the case on standing – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, don’t even have the right to bring this case. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Incorrect. As noted above, like the district court before it, the appellate court addressed the main issues that plaintiffs raised:

  1. Does the scholarship program violate the Blaine Amendment? A: No, it relies on private funds so the Blaine Amendment is not implicated.
  2. Does the scholarship program unconstitutionally create a parallel system of public schools? A: No, this is a privately funded and privately administered program, not a separate government school system.
  3. Does the scholarship program harm the district school system? A: No, there is no evidence of any harm to the district schools.

The AU and their union allies don’t like the answers that the appellate and district court gave, so they simply pretend that they didn’t give them.

Since the court didn’t weigh in on the facts, here are some other things to consider: Sometimes “school choice” advocates claim low-income students need government assistance to escape “failing” schools. But here, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are actually good.

Here we have a straw man argument. The question isn’t whether the district schools are “good” but rather whether they’re the best fit for all the kids who happen to live nearby. Even a school that performs very well on average can’t be all things to all students, which is why the system should empower parents to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.

So why do they want help paying private school tuition? The short answer is that many of them want education infused with their faith. […] That’s perfectly fine. But Florida taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the religious education of any child.

Again, as the court ruled, these are private funds. No taxpayer is forced to contribute to a scholarship organization. If a taxpayer doesn’t want to support religious education, they need only refrain from donating to the scholarship organizations, which is certainly their right.

By contrast, all taxpayers are forced to pay into the district school system, even if they have moral objections to what is taught there. If the AU really cared so much about coercion, they should support entirely privatizing education so that no one is forced to subsidize an education with which they disagree.


Case Dismissed Again: Another Victory for School Choice in Florida

August 16, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

It seems Friday’s update on pending school choice lawsuits came a few days too soon. Today, a three-judge panel of appellate court judges in Florida has unanimously dismissed the teachers’ union’s lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were unable to prove that they were harmed by the program and because the program is privately (not publicly) funded.

No doubt the thousands of parents and students who rallied earlier this year, calling on the union to #dropthesuit, are smiling today.

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Three out of three appellate judges agree with these scholarship kids: #dropthesuit.

I expanded upon the decision at Cato-at-Liberty, but I’ll leave you with the the judges’ conclusion:

Appellants failed to allege that they suffered any special injury as a result of the operation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and failed to establish that the Legislature exceeded any constitutional limitation on its taxing and spending authority when it authorized the program. At most, Appellants quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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[h/t Travis Pillow at RedefinED.]

UPDATE (Aug. 17, 2016): See here for my discussion of one plaintiff group’s response to the ruling.

 


Case Dismissed: Victory for School Choice in Florida

May 24, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The legal attacks on school choice programs are dropping like characters in a George R.R. Martin novel. Last week, a Nevada judge dismissed a case against the state’s education savings account program. Today, a Florida judge dismissed a case against several of the state’s school choice programs.

The Florida lawsuit originally concerned whether the state was adequately funding public education, but in 2014 the plaintiffs amended their suit to challenge a wide range of policies, including state accountability statutes, charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. Last year, a judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the private school choice programs, but this ruling also rejects their substantive claims that the choice programs somehow harm the traditional district school system:

[T]he Court finds no negative effect on the uniformity or efficiency of the State system of public schools due to these choice programs, and indeed, evidence was presented that these school-choice programs are reasonably likely to improve the quality and efficiency of the entire system. […]

Plaintiffs’ specific allegations regarding the constitutional implications of three of Florida’s choice programs- charter schools, the FTC Program, and the McKay Program- are similarly unsupported by the weight of the evidence. […]

The Court has already held that Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the FTC Program, and the Court further concludes that the weight of the evidence does not support their speculative allegations that the FTC Program diverts state funding or has any material, detrimental effect on Florida’s system of public schools.

The weight of the evidence similarly does not support Plaintiffs’ allegations about the McKay Program, which is limited to “Students with Disabilities” and requires eligible students to have an individual educational or accommodation plan under federal law. […] As indicated by the Florida Supreme Court, parental decisions to send individual children with special needs to private school do not implicate the uniformity of the broader public school system- regardless of whether some of those parents accept scholarship funds from the State.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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This decision constitutes one more legal stake in the heart of the canard that educational choice programs harm students attending traditional district schools. As Jon East pointed out at RedefinED yesterday, judges presiding over a separate anti-choice lawsuit in Florida cast a gimlet eye on similar claims during oral arguments last week:

[Florida Education Association] attorney Lynn Hearn: “The loss of $300 million at a minimum to the Florida public school system … is absolutely a fact.”

Presiding Judge Lori S. Rowe: “In your complaint, you haven’t actually alleged that there is a $300 million loss to the Florida education budget, have you?… In fact, the $300 million you’re referring to are the funds that flow into the scholarship program, correct?”

Attorney Hearn: “Well, that’s where the number arrives from, your honor. But we absolutely do allege that that amount has left the public schools in favor of the scholarship program. That’s because of the way the Florida schools are funded. They are funded on a per-student basis. So, during that year, 2013-14, there were 60,000 students who left the Florida public school system.”

Judge Ross L. Bilbrey: “But doesn’t that mean there are 60,000 fewer students that the state has to pay to educate?”

Attorney Hearn: “It does your honor. But the funding of students in our public schools is, uh, we’re not funding widgets, the funding formula for students is not a perfect correlation to the variable cost of funding that student.”

Judge Rowe: “But exactly what is the special injury you are articulating here? You haven’t alleged that any individual student is suffering. You haven’t alleged that per-student funding has been reduced. You haven’t even alleged that the education budget has been reduced.”

Essentially, the union wants to argue the district school system has some special claim on students–and therefore the public funds attached to those students–without openly making that claim. After all, the district school system can’t suffer a “loss” unless they somehow owned those funds to begin with, but parents have no such obligation to enroll their children at their zoned district school, or any district school for that matter. They feel entitled to those children and the corresponding funding, but they know they can’t make that claim explicitly because, well, it’s ludicrous. That’s why the union is having such a hard time articulating any special injury–and why they’re likely to lose that lawsuit as well.

For more information on today’s decision, see Travis Pillow’s write up at RedefinED.

*****

UPDATE: Supplementing his opinion, the judge issued a 179-page Appendix for Findings of Fact which, among many other things, explains that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program relies on private (not public) funding and explains that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any injury resulting from the program:

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (the ―FTC Program‖) allows Florida taxpayers to apply for tax credits ―to make private, voluntary contributions‖ to fund scholarships for children attending eligible K–12 private schools.767 Plaintiffs allege that the FTC Program violates the uniformity and efficiency requirements of Article IX, Section 1(a) by diverting public funds to private schools that are not subject to the same requirements as schools within the State‘s system of free public schools.

The Court has previously found that the FTC Program, which allows third parties to obtain tax credits for making private donations, does not involve public funds, legislative appropriations, or the State‘s ―provision‖ for a ―system of free public schools‖ under Article IX. Because the private donations that fund the FTC Program are not legislative appropriations, the Court has previously determined that Plaintiffs lack taxpayer standing to assert a challenge to this program under Florida law.

Plaintiffs have also failed to prove any special injury that would allow them to challenge the FTC Program. […]

[A]ny connection between the FTC Program and appropriations to support Florida‘s system of free public schools—not to mention the overall quality of that system—is purely speculative. There was no persuasive evidence presented that the FTC Program has any direct or indirect impact on public-school funding or on the uniformity, efficiency, safety, security, or quality of Florida‘s public schools. […]

Even if tax credits resulted in a decrease in the number of students attending the public schools, local school districts are not responsible for educating students who attend private schools.

The appendix is also is chock-full of citations of some dude named Jay Greene. Here’s a taste:

3rd Grade Retention Policy

Florida‘s third-grade retention policy also is supported by academic research. Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has extensively studied the effect of Florida‘s policy. Dr. Greene‘s studies, which are published in a peer-reviewed journal, concluded that Florida‘s test-based retention policy significantly improves the academic achievement of students who are retained.239 Plaintiffs did not present any evidence countering Dr. Greene‘s findings.

Resources & Results

Plaintiffs allege that the overall level of funding in Florida is not sufficient to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of public education.784 Plaintiffs assert that the performance outcomes for certain groups of students indicate that school funding is insufficient.

Plaintiffs, however, have not met their burden of proving a causal relationship between the level of resources available to schools in Florida and student outcomes. Indeed, as described below, the weight of the evidence presented on that issue establishes a lack of any causal relationship between additional financial resources and improved student outcomes. […]

In addition to Dr. Hanushek, Defendants presented findings of Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Greene statistically analyzed school district-level variables throughout the state of Florida, including per-pupil spending, teacher characteristics, and discipline rates, and found no relationship between these variables and student outcomes.

Specifically, Dr. Greene examined school district per-pupil expenditures and percentages of students proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (―FCAT‖)797 for grades 3 through 10 in reading and math; grades 5, 8, and 11 in science; as well as highschool graduation rates, for school years 2007–08 to 2012–13. The analysis revealed no connection between higher amounts of funding available in school districts and better student performance.

Dr. Greene also conducted regression analyses of spending and performance data, controlling for student demographic differences and prior levels of achievement across school districts. The demographic characteristics that were controlled included the proportion of minority students, proportion of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, the proportion of students classified as English language learners (―ELL‖), and the proportion of students with a disability who had an individual educational plan (―IEP‖), as well as academic outcomes in the prior year. The purpose of these analyses was to examine whether school districts would have better student outcomes if they had more resources, assuming school districts had the same demographic composition and prior year‘s academic outcomes. Dr. Greene‘s regression analyses revealed that there is no pattern between the level of spending in Florida school districts and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates.

Teacher Experience

In addition, Dr. Greene evaluated the assertion by Plaintiffs that teacher qualifications and experience characteristics impact student performance, and that districts with high-minority and low-income student populations have a lower percentage of qualified, experienced teachers. Consistent with his other findings, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the proportion of novice (first-year teachers) or ―highly qualified teachers, as defined by the Florida Department of Education, and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates. Likewise, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the percentage of minority and low-income students in a district and the proportion of novice or highly qualified teachers.

Suspension Rates

Dr. Greene also addressed Plaintiffs‘ assertion that high suspension rates are attributable to a lack of school district resources and lead to lower student performance outcomes. As above, Dr. Greene conducted regression analyses that controlled for student demographic characteristics and prior student outcomes. Dr. Greene found no relationship between the rate at which students are given out-of-school suspensions in Florida school districts and FCAT reading, math, or science proficiency, or graduation rates.

Court’s Conclusion re: the Evidence

The Court accepts Dr. Greene‘s conclusions and finds that they corroborate other evidence in the case showing the lack of causal relationship between the level of resources available in Florida schools and student outcomes, as well as evidence showing that the level of resources available is sufficient for a high quality system.

Although Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof in this case, neither Plaintiffs‘ expert witnesses nor their school-district witnesses presented analyses or studies rebutting the work of Drs. Hanushek and Greene. In fact, the weight of the evidence shows that despite budget cutbacks associated with the Great Recession, student performance continued to improve in the period 2007–08 to 2014–15.

 


Jeb!’s Time Machine

September 2, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Education Week really buried their lede in this story:

The voucher program was originally part of [former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s] most notable education reform, the A-Plus Plan, which also required schools to be held accountable using A-F letter grades, and established a new series of standardized tests to measure students’ academic performance.

But the Florida Supreme Court struck down the vouchers as unconstitutional in 2006. Then, in 2001, Bush signed into law a tax-credit scholarship program that has grown into the largest single school choice program of any state in the country as measured by the number of participating students, with about 70,000 low-income students using them in the most recent school year.

How did EdWeek not highlight the fact that Jeb! has a time machine?! I mean, how else did he do something in 2001 in response to something else that didn’t happen until 2006?

I’m generally not one to pick on mere sloppy editing, but the EdWeek piece’s framing repeats a myth peddled by opponents of the scholarship program (one that apparently even accurate chronology cannot dispel). Last month, lawyers for the teachers union that is challenging the scholarship program claimed in a legal brief: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

“Successor” is an odd way to describe something that was enacted five years before the thing it is supposedly succeeding.

The unions and their lawyers know the true chronology but they apparently do not feel bound by things like “facts” and “accuracy” (or perhaps they really do believe Jeb! has a time machine). The disinformation is a part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the legal case for the scholarship program. As Jon East of Step Up for Students explains:

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.”

The teachers union is trying to sell its lawsuit as a type of police action for Bush v. Holmes, the 2006 Supreme Court decision that overturned publicly funded school vouchers for students who were assigned to district schools judged to be failing. Meyer wants judges to believe lawmakers made a fast end-around on the Holmes decision.

I share East’s amazement at “how easy it is to refute [the union’s creative chronology] and yet how prominent a role it continues to play in the FEA’s lawsuit narrative.” Media outlets like Education Week shouldn’t let them get away with it.

[h/t Patrick Gibbons for the story and the “time machine” quip, which I shamelessly stole]


The Dark Days of Educational Measurement in the Sunshine State Ended in 1999

February 8, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over on the Shanker Blog of the American Federation for Teachers, Matthew DiCarlo writes a thoughtful but ultimately misguided post A Dark Day for Education Measurement in the Sunshine State.

DiCarlo is obviously very bright, but a few critical misinterpretations have led him astray. DiCarlo demonstrates that family income is highly correlated with student test scores in Florida. No surprise- the same is true everywhere.

Having demonstrated this, DiCarlo develops a critique of Florida’s school grading system. The Florida school grading system carefully balances overall performance on state exams with academic growth over time. Specifically, the formula weights student proficiency on state exams as 50% of a schools grade, 25% on the growth of all students, and the final 25% on the growth of students who scored in the bottom quartile on last year’s exam.

The last bit is the clever part of the formula. By double weighting the gains of students who are behind, they become the most important children in the building. Only the bottom quartile from last year’s test count in all three categories.

DiCarlo goes into the devilish details about how the state determines these gains, and concludes that some of the gains measures don’t actually measure academic growth but actually effectively measure academic proficiency. The use of proficiency levels in determining gains is critical because students are taking a higher grade level assessment with more rigorous content.  If a student achieves a proficient score on the eighth grade FCAT and then again on the ninth grade FCAT, the student is performing at a higher level because the content is more difficult.  Florida’s system does not provide credit for a learning gain for students performing Advanced in one year but Proficient the next year.

DiCarlo has failed to appreciate that the mastery of more challenging academic material from one grade to the next itself constitutes a form of academic growth.

The 9th grade student has now studied the mathematics curriculum of both 8th and 9th grade and has demonstrated  proficiency of the 8th grade material and  proficiency of the 9th grade material. Given the valid system of testing, we can feel assured that the 9th grader knows more about math than he or she knew as an 8th grader. The growth in this case is staying on track in a progressively more challenging sequential curriculum.

The Florida system, in essence, makes use of proficiency levels in order to give definition to gains and drops as meaningful. There of course is no “correct” way to structure such a system, and if 100 different people examined any given system they would likely have 500 different suggestions for improvement to match their preferences.

DiCarlo’s notion of “fairness” seems to have distracted him from a far larger and more important issue: the utility of the Florida grading system, seen best at the school grading level, has improved student achievement for all students.

If you go back as far as the FCAT data system will take you for results by Free and Reduced lunch eligibility for 3rd grade reading, you’ll find that in 2002 48% of Florida’s free and reduced lunch students scored FCAT 3 or better. In the most recent data available from 2010, 64% scored FCAT 3 or better. That is an enormous improvement in the percentage of students scoring at grade level or better.

In 2002, 60% of all Florida students scored Level 3 or above, and in 2010, 72% scored Level 3 or above. Free and reduced lunch eligible kids in 2010 outperformed ALL kids in 2002 by 4 percentage points. That’s real progress.  And the free and reduced lunch eligible children overtake the 2002 general population averages in a large majority of grades tested.

The same pattern can be found in Florida’s NAEP data. For instance, in 1998, 48% of Florida’s free and reduced lunch eligible students scored “Below Basic” on the NAEP 8th grade reading test. In 2011, that number had fallen to 35%. If an “unfair” system helps to produce a 27% decline in the illiteracy rate among low-income students, I’d like to order up a grave injustice.

The “Dark Days of Education Measurement in Florida” in my view were before school grades. Academic failure lied concealed behind a fog of fuzzy labels, and Florida wallowed near the bottom of the NAEP exams. Back when there was little transparency and even less accountability, far more students failed to acquire the basic academic skills needed to succeed in life. While perhaps a lost golden age for educators and administrators wishing to avoid any responsibility for academic outcomes, it was a Dark Age for students, parents and taxpayers.

Ironically, DiCarlo has decried a system which has weakened the link between family income and academic outcomes demonstrated in his post. Yes it is still strong in Florida, but it used to be much, much stronger.

Finally, can one truly complain about the “fairness” of a system providing more than ten times as many A/B grades as D/F grades? If anything, the Florida school grading system has grown too soft in my view (see chart above).

I’ve read enough of DiCarlo’s work to know that he is a thoughtful person, so I hope he will examine the evidence for himself and reconsider his stance. I don’t have any reason to think that the Florida system is perfect. I don’t think a perfect system exists, and I suspect that there are some changes to the Florida system that DiCarlo and I might actually agree on.

It seems however difficult to argue that the Florida system hasn’t been useful if one gives appropriate weight to the interests of students, parents and taxpayers to balance those of school staff.


Utah and New Mexico Pass A-F school grading

March 19, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New Mexico legislature approved a proposal to grade schools A-F by a wide bipartisan margin late last night, providing a key reform win for Governor Martinez.  Utah passed a similar measure last week. Governor Sandoval has made school grading a key feature of his education agenda in Nevada, and Arizona passed the measure last year.

The Appalachia of the 21st century prophecy is not taking us here in the Southwest without a fight. At least, outside of California. Someone get Jerry Brown on the line stat!