When a journalist sounds more like a talk radio host

Assessing the academic performance of any public education program is no easy task, but Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialist Jay Bookman does seem especially eager to draw simple conclusions about Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income children. The former editorialist in me wishes he had read a little more deeply.

Bookman’s column, “Voucher programs fail advocates’ claims,” tracks his familiar concerns with private options and his belief that they harm traditional public schools. Fair enough. But his description of the most recent academic evaluation in Florida is so pointedly selective that it feels less like journalism than it does talk radio.

Bookman quotes, for example, the assertion by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio that: “The typical student participating in the program tended to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with others nationwide.” But the very next sentence in the report, one which Bookman did not quote, provides telling context: “It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just low-income students.”

That’s not all. The researcher has looked at prior-year test scores for students who choose the scholarship and has found that it continues to attract the lowest performers from public schools – a trend he said “is becoming stronger over time.” Here is how Figlio described it: “Scholarship participants have significantly poorer test performance in the year prior to starting the scholarship program than do nonparticipants. … These differences are large in magnitude and are statistically significant, and indicate that scholarship participants tend to be considerably more disadvantaged and lower-performing upon entering the program than their non-participating counterparts.”

So the report says clearly that the scholarships are attracting the lowest public school performers, but Bookman quoted a statistic that seemed to imply the opposite. He wrote: “Almost 50 percent of the students who joined the Florida voucher program last year came not from ‘failing schools,’ but from schools rated as A by the Florida Department of Education.” But Figlio found nothing significant in that percentage given that 50.8 percent of all low-income students are in A schools.

In sum, Figlio says the scholarship is attracting some of the poorest and lowest-performing students in Florida, that they are making the same gains as students of all income levels nationally and that they made modestly greater gains last year than low-income students in public schools. Of the gains compared to other low-income students, he wrote: “These differences, while not large in magnitude, are larger and more statistically significant than in the past year’s results, suggesting that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.”

Bookman may not support private options, and it is certainly regrettable that Georgia’s tax credit scholarship law fails to require either testing or financial reporting. But the report from Florida he uses to condemn these options is not by any fair reading a condemnation.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.