Voucher impact study disputed
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001
Researchers at Rutgers University have raised doubts about the conclusions of a Florida researcher who found that low-performing schools owe their improvement to the threat of vouchers.
"It is not at all clear that (academic improvement) resulted from the threat of vouchers as opposed to other aspects of the accountability program," reads a portion of a new report written by Gregory Camilli and Katrina Bulkley, both of Rutgers.
The earlier study released in February gave a big boost to Gov. Jeb Bush's school accountability plan by providing an academician's stamp of approval. Written by Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, it was cited by lawmakers in Florida and Washington, and received widespread coverage.
But the Rutgers researchers characterize Greene's findings as "generous and simplistic" and warn that it would be unwise to consider the puzzle of school reform solved.
"The fact is nobody knows yet," said Camilli, professor of educational psychology at Rutgers. "There's a tendency to look for the "black box" theory for education policy. But to conclude that it was one thing, vouchers, and rule out other factors is impossible."
Camilli points out that low-performing schools took multiple steps to improve achievement, including new instructional plans, new staff, and additional resources. Given all those changes, Camilli concludes, it is impossible to isolate the threat of vouchers as the cause of improvement.
In keeping with the tenor of the voucher debate, both studies are sure to have plenty of advocates and detractors. Vouchers remain one of the most divisive issues in education today, and Florida -- with the nation's only statewide voucher program -- is seen as something of a petri dish for the experiment.
In their respective reports, both Greene and Camilli cite the high stakes of their research.
"These results are particularly relevant because of the similarities between the Florida A+ choice and accountability system and the education initiatives proposed by President George W. Bush," Greene wrote in his report.
Though they have followed their reports with combative e-mails to each other, in interviews Thursday both Camilli and Greene said they agree in some areas.
Greene said that in his report he wrote that his study "cannot be considered definitive" as the effects of Florida's program might change over time. Greene also agreed that although his study focused on the impact of the voucher threat, "any sensible approach to school reform has to address incentives (vouchers) and resources (more money, or different uses of money)."
For his part, Camilli agreed that Florida's low-performing schools did improve, and that some aspect of the accountability plan spurred that.
Educators are not surprised that different researchers have reached different conclusions, given the complexity of school improvement. Some applauded the researchers for their part in an important debate.
"Different states are trying different things, so it would be nice to know what works," said Joseph Creech, director of educational policies for the Southern Regional Education Board. "But things do not happen in a vacuum. To isolate one and say that's what affected it is pretty impossible."
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