It’s not easy balancing school choice and regulatory accountability

tight ropeAs public education increasingly organizes itself around customized learning, determining how best to regulate this expanding diversity is a challenge. Fortunately, the Fordham Institute has been a thoughtful participant in this discussion over the last several years, and it made another valuable contribution today by releasing a policy toolkit to assist those of us on the front lines.

Fordham’s policy recommendations are based on three assertions.

1)      Students who use vouchers or tax credit scholarships to help pay tuition and fees at non-district schools should participate in the state assessment system.

2)      School test results should be publicized, except in cases where a school enrolls fewer than 10 testable voucher or scholarship students.

3)      The regulatory consequences of a school’s test results should be related to how much voucher or tax credit revenue the school is receiving. More revenue should lead to more regulatory control.

As a nonprofit organization responsible for helping to manage Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, Step Up For Students has been in dialogue with our state’s elected leadership about these types of regulatory issues for more than a decade now, and we have often relied on Fordham’s insights to help inform these discussions.

We agree tax credit scholarship students should take a standardized test to help gauge their academic progress, but schools that cater mostly to private-paying students seldom take the state-approved assessment and making the conversion is no easy chore. Often, the parents who are paying for tuition prefer a nationally norm-referenced test such as the Stanford Achievement, which means these schools might be forced to give two different tests to two different sets of students. That’s a tall order, and one where the incremental benefits of having scholarship students take the same state test as public school students are not great enough to justify the cost.

Florida requires that scholarship students take approved nationally-normed referenced tests yearly, and issues an annual report on how the students are performing. This report includes comparisons with students nationally, as well as comparable students in district schools. Allowing students to choose from a list of state-approved assessments, which includes the FCAT (the state’s standardized test), has never seriously hindered the state’s ability to gauge how well scholarship students are performing.

Step Up is now working with more than a hundred private scholarship schools that are voluntarily implementing  the new Common Core standards, which Florida district schools are also implementing.  Consequently, we can foresee a future in which district and non-district students might one day be voluntarily taking the same state assessments.

While Fordham recommends that schools with 10 or more testable voucher or scholarship students publicly report these students’ test results, Florida took a more statistically cautious approach. The state decided 30 students was the minimum necessary to produce a meaningful result, aligning the scholarship law to the standards it follows in reporting student subgroup data under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fordham’s third recommendation, that schools serving larger numbers of voucher and/or tax credit students be more heavily regulated, including dismissing them from voucher or tax credit programs for poor academic performance, is the most difficult to implement effectively. Florida has been grading and applying consequences to district schools for 15 years. It has changed its grading formula almost annually in an ongoing attempt to make the system more fair and accurate. Schools are highly complex social organizations that defy simple, holistic judgments about their academic quality. Judging their administrative and financial quality is far easier.

While Step Up For Students has no philosophical quarrel with trying to prevent voucher and tax credit students from enrolling in academically incompetent schools, we have practical questions about how to do this well. The job is made all the more complicated by the fact that, on average, scholarship students make up only a fourth of the enrollment at the private schools they attend. We know highly effective accountability systems find the proper balance between regulations and consumer choice, and we know Florida’s school choice programs aren’t there yet. This is why we are so appreciative of Fordham’s ongoing work in this area.

Avatar photo

BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.


[…] Responding from Florida’s scholarship tax-credit program experience, Doug Tuthill at redefinED makes an excellent point to beware pushing too heavily with the regulations on highly-subscribed schools. His insights are very valuable, particularly that an effective program has to thoughtfully balance the broadest possible range of consumer choice with the demands for public accountability. […]

Comments are closed.