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    More schools earn failing grade

    A voucher program giving students the option to enroll in private schools will grow as a result of the low marks.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 13, 2002

    Florida's small and inconclusive experiment with vouchers for failing schools is about to expand in a big way.

    On Wednesday 10 schools around the state were saddled with an F rating for the second time in four years. In all, 68 schools -- including two in Pinellas and four in Hillsborough -- got F grades.

    Now the students at the double-F schools -- who number roughly 8,900 -- are free to go to a private school with tuition paid by Florida taxpayers.

    The big increase in voucher-eligible schools statewide is sure to reignite the debate over the wisdom of using tax dollars to send kids to private -- and oftentimes, religious -- schools. That increase also comes against the backdrop of Gov. Jeb Bush, the voucher advocate, running for re-election.

    Parents from those schools with 2 F's now will have a few weeks to ask the question that has stymied researchers and politicians: Will a child be better off leaving a low-performing public school and jumping to a private school?

    "I don't know what parents are going to do," said Fran Bain, principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Palm Beach County, one of the 10 schools to get a second F rating. "We didn't lose any students when we were an F before. But now I don't know."

    * * *

    The sobering news of vouchers and F's overshadowed the big picture Wednesday, which showed widespread improvement across the state. Nearly 40 percent of the state's schools improved a grade or more. Nearly 60 percent earned an A or B grade.

    "I know everybody's going to fixate on the 68 F schools, but there's a lot of good information here," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

    At schools that got bad news, there was quiet soul searching.

    "I'm just cleaning my desk and trying to keep myself busy," Bain said. "Pretty soon I'm going to go to the beach, take a deep breath and scream, holler and cry. Then I'll come up with a plan."

    The A-through-F school grades are the most high-profile and controversial feature of Bush's school accountability plan. The release of grades invariably leads critics and educators to point out inconsistencies or problems with the accountability system.

    The system has changed over the years, but never more so than this year. Grades still are based on scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, but now the state also measures student progress from one year to the next.

    Many schools appear to have benefited from the new feature, but clearly not all.

    The appearance of F grades in the Tampa Bay area for the first time would seem to suggest that some schools are performing worse now. But it appears those schools simply lost out under a new system.

    Under the old grading system the six area schools that got F's would have gotten a D grade or better.

    "The bar was raised this year . . . that was the major change," said Hillsborough school superintendent Earl Lennard. "They're making progress. But the progress was not fast enough to keep them out of the F category."

    Another criticism of the grading system is that high-poverty schools tend to end up with low grades. There are notable exceptions, but the patterns are arresting.

    At three of the four Hillsborough County schools that got an F grade, more than 9 of 10 children are eligible for the federal lunch program, an indicator of poverty. The state average is a little more than 53 percent.

    The staff and parents at the new voucher-eligible schools will soon have their work cut out for them. At some schools, principals and teachers could be reassigned. In both Pinellas and Hillsborough, the superintendents made it clear they were standing by their principals.

    Officials from the failing schools will be required to come up with a plan to boost their academic achievement. They will be required to attend an "Assistance Plus Summit" in Tampa next month.

    Parents at the double-F schools will have to decide from among three options for the upcoming school year. They can remain at their school, despite the two F grades. They can transfer to another public school with a C grade or higher. Or they can take a voucher to a private school.

    It's unclear what the parents will do. Judging by the state's only previous experience with school vouchers, a small percentage will leave.

    In 1999 when two Escambia County schools became eligible for vouchers, roughly 10 percent of the 800 students applied for a voucher to a private school. Not all of them found a private school to take them. Another roughly 10 percent transferred to another public school.

    The vouchers themselves will be worth varying amounts depending on the school district. Again, Escambia County is the only model available, and last year a voucher was worth $3,460 in the district. It would be worth more in some of the larger urban districts. The other districts with voucher-eligible schools are Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange.

    The accountability system now in place -- with its measure of learning gains -- is one that Gov. Bush promised at the beginning of his term. Now, state officials say, the state plans to leave the system unchanged for the foreseeable future.

    "It's better than what we had in 1999. It's a pretty sophisticated system," said Carolyn Herrington, director of the Florida Education Policy Studies at Florida State University. "Now we should just leave it alone for a while."

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