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East County Wednesday, Jun. 1, 2011 6 years ago

MY VIEW: Reforms, not money, working

by: Rod Thomson

The first thing to be said about Florida school funding is that the education of Florida’s students has been steadily improving. This is thanks largely to school choice and accountability reforms championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. And yes, this has everything to do with funding.

Because as much as the education establishment of administrators and unions would like you to think otherwise, the truth is that school funding and student education are not directly connected.

We all know the myriad examples of how many high-spending states churn out awful students while many low-spending states spit out the best. Money, if it is any serious factor at all, is minimal in comparison to familial and cultural factors. Good teachers make a difference, too, but after family and culture.

This is just such common sense. Why do inner city schools do so badly? Because of less money?
Obviously not. Because too many students come from messed-up homes in high-crime neighborhoods where doing well in school can earn you a beat down? Obviously so.

Take Sarasota County, for example. The same is spent per student at the Booker schools as at other county schools, but student performance is worse. Why? Family break-down, drugs, violence, culture.

But more evidence keeps piling in. We have two sets of information that have been reported lately.

First, writing scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test improved at all levels, and dramatically in the younger grades. The percentage of fourth-graders graded as writing proficient rose from 68% to 81%. There was significant improvement in eighth- and 10th-grade scores, also.

Second, as everyone knows, schools have been cutting funding for the past four years, down to the bone, the marrow and taking off appendages, or so we’re told. The hyperbole rolls on. So how can it be that at least some scores are actually improving — by a lot — when funding has been cut so drastically during the same time?

Because funding is not a primary indicator of education quality!

I feel like a broken record, but with the education establishment holding otherwise sensible people hostage to the charge of being against the children if you are not for ever large pots of money, and the media completely swallowing anything from that establishment, the obvious truth needs to be stated and restated.

Here’s another truth: By nearly any educational measure other than money, Florida schools went from near the bottom of the pack when Gov. Jeb Bush began his reforms in 1998 to near the top today. It is a counterintuitive assertion backed by facts that is being seen by some organizations outside the state.

Late last year, the American Legislative Exchange Council ranked Florida’s schools as the third-best in the nation in low-income education growth. In January, Education Week magazine ranked Florida’s schools fifth-best in the nation. Didn’t see those big news stories? There are more you may have missed.

This was all accomplished through sweeping reforms by Bush that were opposed by the moneyed education establishment at every step. They include the annual achievement tests known (and derided by the establishment) as FCATs; schools receiving letter grades on which funding is based to create incentives; strong school choice options; vouchers for poor children in lousy schools (which the Florida Supreme Court has now struck down); and scholarships for low-income families that is funded through corporate tax credits, to name a few.

They are slowly but surely having their effect, including for poor and minority students.

The Goldwater Institute dug into Florida’s data subsets and found that Hispanic students are at or above the average for all students in 31 states and black students in Florida are at or above the average for all students in eight states.

The institute also compared Florida and Arizona on educational progress for non-English-speaking students from 1998 to 2008. During that decade, Florida improved the percentage of students achieving “basic” competency by 33%. Arizona, starting at the exact same point, only improved by 14%.

Right now, about 32,000 poor children use the corporate tax credit scholarships. That could more than double in coming years, which will mean even more improvements for the poor, blacks and Hispanics.

The success has been so great, 17 other states are looking at legislation based on the “Florida model.” Aren’t you amazed Florida is seeing such success and you have read almost nothing about it, but plenty about all the damage that budget cuts will cost?

The Legislature, with the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott, just expanded many of the Bush reforms. For instance, charter schools will get freer rein and will be allowed to expand faster — which is great news considering the waiting list for charter schools has ballooned to 37,000 students.

The Florida Education Association — the teachers’ union — spent millions to defeat Bush and others promoting these changes. They’ve fought Scott. And despite the measurable successes, they would do it again, because they have a vested interest in more money, not education outcome.

Remember that the next time you see the placards on the street corner lamenting that budget cuts are destroying our children’s future. It’s just not true.

Rod Thomson is editorial pages editor of the Observers and can be reached at [email protected].

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