The education framework released January 23 by President Bush lays out the administration’s strategy for improving the schools that serve the lowest-income and often lowest-performing students. Bush’s plan would give failing schools more money and flexibility in exchange for improvements in student achievement measured on a yearly basis through standardized tests. The threat of vouchers is needed to force failing schools to raise student achievement.
Historically, public schools have failed low-performing students. The central component of the Bush plan would overhaul the Title I program for disadvantaged students by requiring states to develop systems of rewards and penalties to hold districts and students accountable for academic progress. Specifically, states would be required to test all students in grades three through eight in reading and mathematics every year as a condition of receiving federal Title I aid. In disadvantaged schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years, students could use Title I funds to transfer to a higher-performing public or private school, or to pay for supplemental educational services.
Title I has been reformed several times over the last thirty years. The Department of Education’s own Title I program evaluations demonstrate that after more than $120 billion, the program has not raised student achievement for disadvantaged students.
What the Title I reform has been missing, up until the introduction of Bush’s voucher program, is a real sanction for poor performance and a threat of competition from better-performing public or private schools.The issue is not whether vouchers are a good idea but rather whether the threat of vouchers forces public schools to change their behavior. The answer is yes. In places where public schools have been threatened by vouchers, student achievement has improved.
Florida is the case in point. The Bush plan mirrors Jeb Bush’s A+ education plan in Florida. Since Gov. Bush signed into law the first statewide voucher program for students stuck in schools that receive an "F" for two years in a row based on student achievement, very few students have received vouchers. In the first year of the program, 53 students received the private vouchers and 60,000 other children were estimated to be eligible for the scholarships for the 2000 school year. Miraculously, in the second year of the A+ education plan every school in Florida (including the 70 schools that had an "F" grade the year before) managed to pull test scores up enough to avoid the voucher sanction.
Vouchers provide Bush's accountability system with the incentive that schools will need to improve student achievement. On a nationwide scale, failing public schools should have a similar response to the Florida public schools. Bush’s national voucher program is in fact more generous and lenient than the Florida voucher program. Failing schools will have three years to improve and will get extra help in terms of both financial and technical resources.
It takes a very small competitive threat to motivate the public schools to change their behavior. In Edgewood, Texas, for example, since the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation—the first-ever private scholarship program to target an entire district—provided 1,200 Edgewood students with scholarships for private schools, the school district has reported dramatic increases in student performance. Six years ago, Edgewood reported dropout rates of about 50 percent, and only 38 percent of its students could pass the state’s mandatory TASS. In the 2000 school year students in the district had an 80- percent passing rate on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TASS) and had improved attendance and lower dropout rates. These improvements came as many of the poorest-performing students remained in the public schools. A small amount of competition can inspire a large amount of change.
The federal government currently spends over $8 billion a year on Title I remedial- education programs. Until Title I becomes a program focused on student outcomes, disadvantaged students will continue to lag behind their more-advantaged peers. Bush needs the school voucher component to provide a true sanction for public schools if they continue to perform poorly. With the extra help Bush is offering failing Title I schools, they should be able to replicate Florida’s voucher program success with very few public school students actually receiving vouchers. If students can’t succeed in public schools, then parents deserve a chance to send their children to better schools.
Title I Reform
Much of the details of the Bush’s Title I overhaul will be worked out when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this session. In order to help failing Title I schools improve academic achievement, Congress will have to address an inherent conflict in the way Title I reform is currently conceptualized.
The popular Title I reform trend that has bipartisan support encourages more money to be spent on school-wide Title I programs. Specifically, last year Congress recommended lowering the percentage of poor children from 50 to 40 percent that would qualify a school for participation in a school-wide program.. In light of Title I’s past poor performance, the U.S. Department of Education and Congress concluded that direct instruction through pullout programs does not work, and have shifted the focus away from individualized remedial instruction toward whole-school reform. As a result, school-wide programs, especially externally developed "models," are being overemphasized with little evidence backing their superiority. At best, evidence for the effectiveness of whole-school reform is mixed, and no clear proof links school-wide projects to improved student achievement.
School-wide programs, which do not focus on individual Title I students, are essentially a funding stream to improve student achievement for the whole school. When Title I money is used for a whole-school program, the school might improve the reading curriculum for all students in the school. While this is an admirable goal, the tradeoff is that Title I money is diverted from remedial-education students who need individual attention to improve reading. Also, whole-school assessment cannot isolate which specific programs (like Title I interventions) are responsible for increases or decreases in student achievement. School-wide programs make it difficult to measure individual achievement of Title I students, which will be required by Bush’s plan.
Bush’s plan promotes remedial-education vouchers for individual students trapped in failing Title I remedial-education programs. An alternative remedial-education reform that has shown gains in achievement for low-income students is the use of private tutoring companies to provide Title I instruction. Public school Title I programs have seen significant increases in student achievement by contracting with private remedial-education companies for reading intervention. School contracting for private remedial instruction is very close to a tutoring model and focuses on the individual poor reader. Research shows that when firms (such as Sylvan Learning Systems or Kaplan Educational Services) provide public remedial-education instruction, students completing the private programs score higher on standardized achievement tests than students completing traditional public school Title I programs.
If Congress continues to support whole-school reform over other forms of remedial instruction, the Department of Education will essentially be endorsing one best way to provide Title I services. Yet, the success of the private Title I providers demonstrates at least one other reform method can be effective. When Congress reauthorizes ESEA, it should not endorse any one reform method, but rather should offer Title I bonuses based on results. Thus public schools would receive money for improved student achievement and lose students (through vouchers) for failing to "make the grade." Students would have either better education through public school improvement or, through vouchers, a choice of schools or supplemental instruction.
As three former assistant U.S. education secretaries, Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Diane Ravitch, wrote in a memo to the President in a January 2001 issue of Education Week:
Empower schools to make decisions. Schools (and other Title I providers) should be allowed to spend federal funds as they see fit, so long as disadvantaged children end up learning more. This could include schoolwide reform strategies, pullout programs, placement of poor youngsters with the school's best teachers, smaller classes, intensive early-reading interventions, and other programs. It's up to them. Washington is agnostic as to method but insistent about results.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.