The education framework released Jan. 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. Historically, public schools have failed low-performing students. The threat of vouchers is needed to force failing schools to raise student achievement.
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 3-8 in reading and mathematics every year as a condition of receiving federal Title I aid. In disadvantaged schools that failed 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 30 years. The Department of Education's own Title I program evaluations demonstrate that after more than $ 120 billion, the program has not raised 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 school choice 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 as the Florida public schools. Bush's national voucher program is actually 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 instigate the public schools to change their behavior. In Edgewood, Texas, for example, since Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation - the first 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.
In the 2000 school year, students in the district had an 80 percent passing rate on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and improved attendance and lower dropout rates. Six years ago, Edgewood reported dropout rates of about 50 percent, and only 38 percent of its students could pass the state's mandatory TAAS. 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 more than $ 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 success with the voucher program with very few public school students receiving vouchers.
If they can't, then parents deserve a chance to send their children to better schools.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.