Florida's F-rated schools did well enough on the state's writing test to make their students ineligible for vouchers next year.
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000
Hard work in Florida's struggling schools has accomplished what lobbying and lawsuits so far could not: It has stopped Florida's school voucher program in its tracks.
At least for the time being.
The nation's first and only statewide voucher program is in a holding pattern for a year because each of Florida's 78 F-rated schools scored high enough on the state's writing test to ensure their students will not be eligible for vouchers next school year.
"All of the 78 schools got off the list of F's and moved to D's based on their ability. And the teachers did a wonderful job, and the students did a wonderful job," Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said Monday.
Gallagher's announcement surprised players on both side of the school voucher issue. Most expected the state's Opportunity Scholarship program to expand to include a few thousand children in the coming school year. It easily could have become the largest voucher program in the nation.
Instead, one of the nation's premier school choice experiments will be limited to 52 Pensacola children from the state's only two voucher-eligible schools from last year. (A recent law also allows a limited number of disabled children to use a state voucher to attend private school if their needs are not met in a public school.)
Despite the surprise turn in the state's school choice experiment, both sides quickly declared the day's news as further evidence to bolster their case.
"It just goes to show you don't need vouchers to improve schools, you just need to devote attention to those schools," said Ron Meyer, the lawyer leading the legal battle against the state's voucher plan.
"So the system works," said Gov. Jeb Bush, the driving force behind the voucher program. "The threat of the opportunity scholarships, I think, refocused school districts."
Gallagher offered only a first peek at the state's much-anticipated test results Monday. For weeks, educators have awaited reading, writing and math scores as well as the school performance grades. Gallagher only released writing scores for the 78 F-rated schools. Writing scores for the rest of the state are expected by Wednesday. Math and reading scores are expected within two weeks.
Limited as it was, Gallagher's announcement answered the most urgent questions about vouchers and failing schools. If any of last year's F-rated schools were to fail again this year and become voucher-eligible, parents at those schools would have until July 1 to decide whether to take a voucher. Those schools no longer need to worry about vouchers for now.
The announcement touched off celebrations and raw emotion around the state as educators learned that they had shed the label of failing schools.
At A.A. Dixon Elementary in Pensacola (one of the state's only two voucher-eligible schools), the principal got a call from her superintendent about 11:30 a.m.
Principal Judith Ladner put Superintendent Jim May on the speaker phone. She and assistant principal Linda Brown sat together in her office, clutched each other's hand and listened.
"We were very quiet," Brown said. "We grinned from ear to ear, but we didn't say a thing. We wanted to hear everything he had to say. And then . . . tears. We lost it."
Dixon Elementary got off the failing list with a bang. They posted a 66 point increase in the percentage of kids meeting the state standard -- the biggest increase among the 78 F schools.
In Ocala, Fessenden Elementary School principal Loretta Jenkins personally went to every classroom to spread the news that her school was off the failing list.
At Taylor County Elementary School in Perry, Mary Becht learned that her school escaped the failing list with a 31 percentage point gain.
"It's a wonderful shock for us all," said the third-grade teacher. "The children were the ones that really worked the hardest. They were little soldiers. They knew there was a lot riding on this."
Gallagher got in on the celebrations Monday. He flew to Pensacola to visit Dixon Elementary and the state's other voucher-eligible school, Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy. Gallagher brought sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies for the students.
Escambia County Superintendent Jim May joined Gallagher and made a point of keeping the focus on the students, teachers and staff at the schools. May, who has been critical of the state's accountability system that put so much pressure on his schools, was candid about how his schools made the grade this year.
"We taught to the test," May said later. "As long as we're going to be held to this level of accountability, we're going to continue teaching to the test. I'm not particularly glad to report that to you, but it's true."
May and other educators have objected to Bush's accountability system, especially the A through F grading system that leaves schools with labels.
"Whenever you start labeling people as failures, it has such an incredible effect," May said.
But some educators acknowledged that the pressure may have had the desired effect.
"We were devastated when we got that grade (last year)," said Fessenden Elementary principal Jenkins. "But I guess when your feet are held to the fire, it does make a difference."
School choice advocate John Kirtley said that was one of the main reasons for the improvement.
"I congratulate every single child and family and teacher who worked hard to bring up those scores," said Kirtley. The Tampa businessman raised $2-million to help private schools renovate or expand to make room for the anticipated influx of voucher students. "I knew the threat of competition would spur our government schools to do better."
Kirtley along with Pat Heffernan with Floridians for School Choice, worked long hours to ensure that there were enough private schools to accept all the kids leaving public schools with vouchers. He said he did not consider his time nor money (he pledged $500,000 of his own money) to have been wasted.
"Sometimes investments pay off in ways you don't expect," Kirtley said. "If even a few children got a better education -- and I think they did -- then our efforts were not for naught."
The exceptional writing scores released Monday may have some unanticipated consequences. Now that so many schools have mastered the writing standard, the state is talking about raising it.
"It's been our intention from the get-go to have progressively higher standards for our children," Bush said and added he did not foresee any changes until the 2001-2002 school year.
The state has raised the bar in the past. For instance, the standard on the writing test is that 50 percent of a school's fourth-graders must score a three or above on the writing exam. But until former Education Commissioner Frank Brogan (now the lieutenant governor) raised the bar in 1998, the standard was 33 percent scoring three or above.
Gallagher said that although the 78 F-rated schools have shed the failing label, 20 new schools are in danger of being saddled with their first F grade, based on their writing scores only. To get an F, a school would have to fall short in reading, writing and math. The commissioner declined to identify the 20 schools. The math and reading scores still could save those 20 schools from an F grade.
-- Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.