On One Hand...
There’s good news and bad news about Florida’s K-12 educational system.
The good news is first, that the legacy of policies that Jeb Bush set into motion more than a decade ago — increased academic standards and accountability, including rigorous testing — continue to bear fruit.
This past spring, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams showed that Florida’s fourth- and eighth-graders both posted gains in math, and eighth-graders showed gains in reading. The fourth-grade math score was the highest in state history.
Notably, Florida was the only state to show statistically significant improvement on three of the four assessments. Florida also was the only state where eighth-graders improved in math. Just as notable: While a performance gap between white students and black students persists, all subgroups of students — black, white, disabled, poor, male, female — showed improvement. All the subgroups outperformed their national counterparts in fourth-grade math and reading. Graduation rates are up as well, hitting 86%.
“Something very good is happening in Florida, obviously,” Peggy Carr, a NAEP executive, told reporters. These results got much less attention than they deserved when they were announced, and certainly much less ink than the recent appointment of Richard Corcoran as commissioner of the state’s department of education, a less significant event. Florida needs to be proud that our K-12 system is better than it was a decade ago and that the improvement was accomplished even as K-12 education got a slightly smaller slice of the state’s budget. That accomplishment is a real testament to both teachers and to the state policies that have made the system more accountable.
The second bit of good news has a lot to do with the first: Florida’s K-12 system is dynamic — better able to respond to needs and better positioned to evolve going forward — because it has thoroughly integrated school choice into its infrastructure.
In 2017-18, more than 640,000 students participated in 581 magnet schools or magnet programs in 28 Florida school districts. Meanwhile, the number of children receiving scholarships under the state’s tax credit scholarships has grown from around 51,000 in 2013-14 to more than 98,000 in 2018-19. The program helps economically disadvantaged children, providing tuition scholarships if they want to attend a private school or transportation grants to those who want to attend a better school in a different district. Those who get the scholarships for four years are 40% more likely to attend college, research shows. The only sour note for this program is that a decline in corporate contributions has reduced, by 10,000, the number of students the program will serve in 2018-19.
The state’s charter school environment is dynamic as well. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, total public school enrollment grew by around 112,000 students, about 4%. Enrollment at traditional district schools grew by some 46,700 students. Enrollment at charter schools grew about 65,600, now totaling some 295,000 statewide.
In some districts — Palm Beach, Broward, Lee and Collier — the number of students attending charters has declined since 2015. In others, it’s risen dramatically — Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Osceola, where a fifth of all public school students attend charters. The overall trend: In 2013-14, 8.4% of all public school students attended charter schools. In 2017-18, 10.4% attended charters. More than 40% of charter school students are Hispanic; 20% are African-American.
The biggest problem with charters is not that some fail — bad schools, charter or traditional, ought to go out of business. The problem is that politicians and the teachers union continue to stoke the myth that charters, which are public schools, somehow steal money from the public school system. They don’t. See TaxWatch’s 2017 report, “Finding the True Cost of Public Education,” and put that myth to bed.
The bad news for K-12 in Florida?
Long term, the biggest challenges are the persistent achievement gap between poor black children and white children; a growing school-age population — some 250,000 more 5- to 17-year-olds by 2030, and competition for state education dollars from the Pac-Man of Medicaid, which doubled from 16% to 32% of state spending from 2000-18 and continues to grow.
Key to meeting those challenges is another: Attracting good teachers. In addition to perennial teacher shortages in certain specialties like mathematics and science, there’s already evidence, spotty but growing, of a broader, more pervasive shortage that’s beginning to extend throughout the public system.
Attracting people into the profession will involve paying them more — and differently. There’s just no reason aside from the teachers union why a district shouldn’t be able to pay more to some categories of teachers, like ESOL, math and science instructors, that are chronically in short supply. We also have to find ways to better link pay to performance, while at the same time giving teachers more autonomy and more support in managing their classrooms. Teachers deserve choice, too.
So good luck, Commissioner Corcoran. If you show too many signs that your only goal is some ideological Grail of putting a voucher in every parent’s hands, then you’ll blunt two decades of progress. Show us that you’re committed to improving all parts of the system and capitalizing on the state’s hard-won educational momentum — and we’ll all learn something.
Read more in our February issue.
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