(Tyrus Cobb) – NPRI’s Patrick Gibbons recently drew attention to the remarkable gains that students have made in Florida, especially with respect to progress in reading and dramatic improvement in test scores. What were of keen interest in Patrick’s report were the very impressive advancements that minorities and those from lower income homes have made.
Reports from the Nevada Policy Research Institute tend to reflect conservative/libertarian viewpoints, and highlight areas where fiscal restraint has produced results. Thus it is no surprise that the NPRI report highlights progress made without significant infusions of K-12 funding and under a regime that allows and encourages new approaches to teaching and institutions. Having said that, the Gibbons piece is worth a serious look.
The NPRI report emphasizes that:
– In 1998 Nevada and Florida 4th graders tested even; last year Florida’s average 4th grader was a full grade ahead of Nevada’s
– Hispanics, Afro-Americans, and low income students saw tremendous gains. Florida Hispanics now even outperform Nevada white students!
– Florida’s Afro-American students now tie or outscore the average student in eight areas.
So what does Gibbons credit for such impressive advances? Not unexpectedly, he argues it had nothing to do with “per pupil funding” (PPF). In fact, he points out, PPF increased nationwide in the decade after 1998 53% more than it did in Florida. Nevada and Florida increased their PPF about the same amount, but students jumped a full grade better in performance in Florida.
So what was the secret? Gibbons points out that:
Florida has extensive online, virtual-school programs and a robust system of charter schools
It has an innovative corporate scholarship program aimed at low-income students, another for special needs kids, and assistance for students wishing to leave failing schools
Florida reformed teacher recruitment by creating alternative pathways to certification, banned social promotion, and strengthened curriculum and assessments (Nevada is very enthusiastic about this!)
It should be noted that the Florida Senate this year also passed SB-6, a bill that would have terminated teacher tenure, by which instructors gain lifetime guaranteed employment after just a couple trial years. It would also end paying teachers primarily on the basis of seniority and degrees. The new system would reward performance and high classroom performance ratings. Then Governor Crist vetoed the bill, but it remains very much alive. The teachers’ unions are understandably apoplectic! (This issue is likely to surface in the 2011 Nevada Legislative session and will be a hotly-debated concept)
The Gibbons study would seem to suggest a model for education reform in this state as well. However, critics note that Gibbons failed to reveal several important differences between student funding levels and other characteristics. For example:
Never mind the “increase” in PPF, the fact is that Per Pupil Funding in Florida is $8,567, while it is only $7,806 in Nevada. If you multiply that differential times the number of K-12 students in the state (430,000), Nevada K-12 would need an additional $327 million just to catch up with Florida.
Taxpayer funded full day “pre-K” is offered universally to all kids in Florida, considered vital in closing gaps for minorities or ELLs. In Nevada, only 12% participate, while in Florida it is over 74% (Heritage Foundation figures)
Florida offers full-day kindergarten for all kids; Nevada for less than 50%
Nevada awards teacher tenure after just one year! In Florida, it’s three years
Nevada does not have merit pay (“pay for performance”); Florida has more than $147 million allocated annually for merit bonuses
It would seem that several factors assisted Florida in achieving such impressive improvements, including much higher PPF and fully funded pre-K. Florida also has been in front of the education reform movement, including assisting charter schools, encouraging online learning, and providing alternative paths to teacher certification. The system has also been very pro-active in encouraging corporate participation in low-income and minority scholarship programs. Despite resistance from traditional unions, look for the abolition soon of teacher tenure and compensation based on seniority and degrees.
In some ways this would be an argument for increased PPF in this state. However, I have two reservations here. First, the correlation between PPF and school performance is weak, given that states like New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have the highest PPFs in the nation, but perform near the bottom on test scores. Utah, which has a one of the lowest PPF ratios, and like other low funded states, is near the top in all rankings. (Utah, of course, also has fewer poor, minority, ESL, highly mobile kids and boasts a strong family/religious foundation).
Second, as I told an official of the state teachers’ union, if it is the case that our current K-12 system produces some of the worst metrics in the country with respect to graduation rates, scoring on tests, and other measurements, the last thing one should do is pour more money into that model! I can’t picture a group of executives in a private sector firm whose sales and performance are abysmal arguing that investors should increase funding for that sorry firm.
Still, the argument can be made for increasing PPF here in Nevada, but I would recommend that only if it were part and parcel of a comprehensive education reform initiative.
Here in Washoe County, Superintendant Heath Morrison knows he will not be getting the PPF that Florida enjoys and WCSD will have to do the best it can with the resources provided. Still, in his short tenure we have seen dramatic improvement in our elementary and middle schools on state tests and graduation rates are moving up significantly. The reforms he and his team have instituted to date have been very ambitious—one of the most aggressive in the nation–and have produced impressive results.
Rather than saying, “You did a good job with low funding, keep it up, Sup!” I would rather applaud the results to date and encourage more intensive and deeper reforms. At the top of the list would be ending teacher tenure and increasing pay for performance in place of wage hikes based on seniority. If the District (and the state) continues to improve and moves in that direction, I think it would be incumbent upon us as taxpayers and citizens to provide more support, as Florida does. This would mean, yes, more PPF from the state, but of equal importance, more corporate support for scholarships, more involvement by parents, and more flexibility for school principals and teachers to implement innovative ways to inculcate a love for learning in the minds of even the most truculent students.
There is no silver bullet here, but the combination of reforms and additional resources laid out here strike me as a winning combination.