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Julie Delegal: Voucher students must take the tests public-school pupils do

Officials at private schools that accept voucher students are now “terrified,” writes Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel.

They’re worried about some legislators’ suggestions that schools that admit students who pay tuition with tax-credit vouchers should be required to administer the same standardized tests that public schools do.

But take heart, private school officials! House Speaker Will Weatherford’s got you covered in a way you probably haven’t thought of yet. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Since 2008, students using Florida’s tax-credit-funded vouchers to attend private schools have not taken the same test that public school students have.

Voucher students have never been required to take the FCAT. But before 2008, the state’s researcher at least attempted to compare public and voucher-student scores using another test. The problem is, that testing instrument was never designed to measure gains, rendering the study not very useful.

To measure gains, or student growth, we have standards-based, grade level tests like the FCAT and its successor, the Common-Core-based, yet-to-be-named “Florida test.”

Starting in 2015, public school student progress will be measured by the latter.

Some lawmakers think that the best gauge of voucher success is how well families like the program.

“Anybody who says this is a bad program or it isn’t working can go speak to the 60,000 kids who are predominantly minority, who are overwhelmingly low income, and who clearly like the program,” Weatherford told the Miami Herald on Feb. 14.

If parent happiness with a school is the criterion, please, exempt my public school child from the FCAT!

Senator Don Gaetz appears to have finally heard the drumbeat from parents and educators. In the face of yet another expansion of the voucher program, he has asked not just about how families like the program, but how well their children are doing academically.

Apples-to-apples accountability is a good idea, particularly when Weatherford is peddling an expansion of vouchers. He wants to increase the corporate tax credit pot by another $30 million, add sales taxes to the mix, raise income levels for eligibility and offer partial vouchers for middle-class kids.

And that’s why private schools won’t have to worry. If they get an influx of middle-class pupils, studies show, criterion-referenced test scores for voucher students will rise.

This is not to say that low-income kids can’t improve. In low-income “turnaround” public schools in Duval County, they often do. But we all know, poverty is the primary correlate to poor academic achievement. And we know that, so far, there’s no evidence that putting a poor child in a private school will make that child perform better academically.

Despite the spin propagated by charter-school proponents through the Florida Department of Education’s “study,” we know that when it comes to poor students, charter schools — another privatization program that uses public dollars — aren’t producing any better results than public schools.

In fact, UCF researcher Stanley Smith says that when you account for student income, Florida’s charter schools underperform the state’s public schools. Smith says that the in reporting the “success” of charter schools, the DOE was in fact reporting the effects of relatively higher family incomes for charter students.

After 14 years of education “reform” in Florida, and after six years of virtually no accountability for tax-credit-funded vouchers, it’s time for the state to get serious about the research on “school choice.”

It’s also time to look at student demographic factors and perform regression analyses for each of those factors – so we can judge what’s making the difference in private vs. public school scores: Family income? Or teacher and school effectiveness?

Only after all the data is in, can we ask ourselves: Is diverting education dollars from public schools to charter and voucher programs a good investment? If it’s not, then we should stop doing it.

Julie Delegal is a Jacksonville-based writer who has covered education since 2009.

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