Following Florida: Why School Choice Should Top Lawmakers’ Education Agenda

Improving Nevada Education Through School ChoiceSchool choice, not Pre-K, has raised Florida’s test scores

In 1998, Florida and Nevada had the exact same score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test for fourth grade reading. In 1999, however, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush instituted a series of reforms, including corporate tuition scholarships, vouchers, grading schools from A-F, ending social promotion after the third grade, a robust system of charter schools and expanded online learning options.

The results were remarkable. Over the next 12 years, Florida’s fourth graders scored approximately two grade levels higher on the same NAEP test. Nevada, which is similar to Florida demographically, only scored about half a grade level higher. These gains were even higher for minority and English-language-learner students whose reading ability increased by up to two-and-a-half grade levels.

Florida and Nevada also increased per-pupil spending by a similar amount during this time period, and even more remarkably, no doubt, in the view of the “we must spend more” crowd, the Sunshine State’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil funding stayed flat or decreased during the first four years of the gains.

As a result of Florida’s remarkable progress, researchers descended upon the state. Their studies confirmed that allowing parents to choose the school and school type — whether public, private, online or homeschooling — is best for their children, actually increased academic achievement in the public schools. Competition didn’t hinder public schools; it made them better.

Because of Florida’s remarkable track record, Gov. Brian Sandoval has made emulating Florida’s education reforms the centerpiece of his education agenda. Going into the 2013 Legislative Session, both Gov. Sandoval and Democratic leaders have expressed verbal support for ending social promotion out of the third grade.

Ending social promotion is an important reform, because until the third grade children learn to read and after the third grade children read to learn. If a child “passes” the third grade but isn’t able to read, that child is set up to fail everyday for the rest of his or her academic career, before — demoralized — they may drop out.

While ending social promotion will be a positive for Nevada’s students, for the state to achieve Florida-quality gains will require much more.

Because even leftists can no longer deny the remarkable gains Florida children have experienced, liberal politicians are now misrepresenting Florida’s record to support a costly program that is a proven failure — pre-Kindergarten schooling.

While Florida did pass a universal pre-K program that was fully implemented in 2005, the earliest those 2005 pre-K students could have taken a fourth-grade NAEP reading test was 2011. And Florida’s 2011 fourth grade reading scores actually decreased by a point from 2009.

Clearly, pre-K did not cause Florida’s remarkable gains in student achievement.

Additional powerful evidence resides within three federally funded studies of Head Start. Head Start is the federal government’s $8 billion a year pre-K program. The latest study was released in December 2012, and it found, like the two previous studies, that Head Start produced minimal gains for students and those gains had almost entirely disappeared by the third grade.

Florida isn’t the only state that’s benefitting from school choice programs. While such programs can be structured in numerous ways — including education tax credits, education savings accounts or vouchers — the common feature of all those different programs is that they empower parents with choices. Parents and students receive their proportion of public school funding and then decide among the educational choices available, including private schools, virtual learning or homeschooling.

Today, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have some form of school choice. Unlike what happens when money is poured into a broken system, these programs produce results. School choice raised graduation rates in Washington, D.C., and has increased reading and math scores in North Carolina, Wisconsin, New York and Washington, D.C.

Nevada’s children are the biggest losers when intelligent and powerful individuals ignore the real cause of Florida’s remarkable education gains.

It’s time for Gov. Sandoval to spend some of his political capital and show Nevadans how school choice would improve our education system.

And it’s time for legislative leaders to give Nevada’s kids the school choice opportunities available for students in Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana and 18 other states.

Victor Joecks is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. 

  • Pogonip

    This is a very tricky area, if government tax money is diverted to fund private enterprises, even schools. The schools would have to be monitored by the state, minimum standards maintained, and the separation of church and state maintained. There is a danger of destroying the public school system and replacing it with a system of elite schools, available only to the wealthy among us. Families of moderate means would be channeled into mediocre choices and even charity cases. Poor families, those unable to meet the extra costs, would be left by the wayside.

    How much better it would be in a country like ours to strengthen and improve the public school system.

  • Melissa Pugh

    I completely disagree with pogonip
    “There is a danger of destroying the public school system and replacing it with a system of elite schools, available only to the wealthy among us. Families of moderate means would be channeled into mediocre choices and even charity cases. Poor families, those unable to meet the extra costs, would be left by the wayside. ”
    I am a single mother living well below the poverty line. My son is a bright boy and I knew after a dismal year in kindergarten with a teacher who was so overworked that she couldn’t even remember my son’s name that public school was no longer an option if I wanted him to get a good education. I had seen an article on charter schools and how they were changing the face of public schooling. I began researching Charter schools in southern Nevada and was shocked to see exactly how many there are. I was also shocked to find that they are all tuition free. They are public schools! Everyone has the same chance to get in. All you have to do is apply. At the school I finally picked it is done on a first come first served basis.

    The diversity at my son’s school is mind boggling. Every single Social, Economic, Religious and Racial group is represented.

    The school I finally chose has been around for 10 years. They were Nevada’s first iSchool. Their test scores are amazing and their commitment to the students and the families of their students is astounding. Best part is that there is no yearly tuition and they are a k-12 school. My son can go to school with all the same kids from first grade on.

    While doing my research I found that the only restriction that most charter schools had was that you be a resident of the Clark County School District. It also seemed to be a universal thing among charter schools to restrict the number of students in each class (EKA has a limit of 25).

    I say give parents a choice. I say allow more charter schools. Give us Vouchers. Open the way for the new frontier of learning!

    Also look at what New Orleans has done with their public school system. Its amazing what a few years and a few dedicated people can do.