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Moving Texas Transparency to Grade A

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Florida lawmakers under former governor Jeb Bush instituted a sweeping suite of education reforms beginning in 1999 that today is known as “the Florida cocktail.” The reforms included the expansion of parental choice, providing financial incentives for academic improvement and rigorous coursework and a strong focus on early literacy acquisition. Governor Bush put transparency at the heart of his reform effort by grading all public schools A, B, C, D or F based upon a combination of student learning gains and overall proficiency.

Since the advent of reform, public school improvement in Florida has been quite impressive. Stanford, Harvard and the University of Munich academic researchers recently examined the progress of state public education systems. The researchers found a great deal variation between American states themselves: some have been making academic progress at a much faster rate than others. In a most illuminating chart, the authors plotted out combined average annual state academic gains on NAEP against their increase in spending per pupil.

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Before you rush to find Texas, a few notes on what you are looking at- along the horizontal axis is the inflation adjusted spending per pupil increase in the public school system between 1990 to 2009. The vertical axis plots state improvement on the Nation’s Report Card exams. Since these are average annual gains over almost a two decade period, differences that appear small on the chart can make a big difference to real students- similar to compound interest.

Note, first, the worst performing states. Wyoming, with approximately a $6,000 per student increase in spending banked academic gains below that of the average state. New York did the same with spending to get only average improvement.

People could disagree about which state does the worst in the chart, but the best state is clear: Florida. Florida has both the nation’s smallest increase in spending per pupil and the nearly the nation’s largest academic gains. Florida turns in the most impressive performance by a wide margin in terms of improving bang for the buck in the public school system.

When Governor Bush took office, the Nation’s Report Card revealed Florida to be saddled with one of the lowest performing school systems in the nation. Like Texas, Florida had just about every K-12 challenge: explosive population growth, the full gamut of both inner-city and rural school issues.  Florida and Texas also educate large numbers of foreign born students. Florida, like Texas, has a majority of low-income students and a “majority minority” student demographic profile.

Providing crystal clear transparency served as a catalyst for public school improvement in Florida. Communities rallied around schools with low grades and pitched in with improvement efforts. Faced with the reality of the situation, volunteers appeared at schools to mentor students. Rather than sweep Florida’s academic problems under a rug, Floridians rose to the occasion to address them.

Florida policymakers adopted a method for assigning grades which heavily incentivized student progress. State officials assigned half of a school’s grade based upon student academic progress on state exams, and double weighted the growth of students who had fallen behind. The results have been impressive as traditionally at risk student groups made up ground. Florida’s low-income, minority and special education students achieved impressive academic gains.

People instantly grasp the A-F scale, a distinct advantage over a system of fuzzy labels employed in Texas. Texas has a four tier fuzzy label system with “Recognized” and “Exemplary” as the top two but without it being evident which is better.  A vast majority of the rest of schools are thrown into a non-descript “Academically Acceptable” category. One of the four labels is clear “Academically Unacceptable” but only 1.4% of Texas students attend schools with that label.

“Academically Acceptable” does not pack the same punch as “C” or “D” and thus promotes public apathy rather than engagement. Texans can handle the truth and will rise to the challenge of improving public education performance. Texans of all philosophical backgrounds desire a school system that gives the most to the children who start with the least. We deeply desire a system of schooling that provides meaningful equality of opportunity. Treating parents and taxpayers as adults by providing them clear and consistent information regarding the realities of both academic success and failure is a necessary step to moving towards the goal of fulfilling the promise of public education.


About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.