But, does choice really kill public education – especially for black students?
Florida’s governor must know something.
A few days ago, he signed a bill to further expand school choices in his state, which already has lots of options for parents such as charter schools and voucher programs. The new bill further expands private school voucher programs and adds to more than two decades of major school choice programs in Florida. These include the ground-breaking John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which was enacted and launched in 1999 as the nation’s first school voucher program for students with special needs.
So, Florida is moving forward with school choice.
But, according to Kentucky’s public school folks, especially the teachers’ union and their allies, you’d think that Florida was committing some sort of public education suicide. You see, Kentucky’s public education folks adamantly claim that school choice for parents is bad for traditional public schools and the students in them.
Let’s look at some public school test data for Florida and Kentucky from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In honor of our long-standing concerns about the biases faced by black students in Kentucky’s school system, we’ll concentrate on that group’s performance.
Figure 1 shows how black students in public schools in Florida and Kentucky performed on NAEP Grade 4 Reading between 2003 (the first year all the states participated in the NAEP) and 2019. As you can see, Kentucky outscored Florida in 2003.
In fact, going all the way back to 1992, the first year State NAEP was given in this grade and subject, Kentucky’s black students outscored Florida’s, 196 to 185.
That 11-point difference in 1992 was statistically significant even after considering some fairly large statistical sampling errors in the scores. And, some sources indicate that about a 10-point difference on the NAEP equates to a full year of extra schooling.
So, an 11-point spread that cannot be explained away as just a sampling error issue is also a serious difference in scores.
Flash forward to 2019. Florida’s black students now outscore Kentucky’s by 12 points, and that is also statistically significant as well as a big score difference.
Thus, Florida’s black students in public schools have gone from scoring well behind Kentucky’s to performing notably ahead. Since Florida was constantly increasing school choice throughout much of this time, the situation certainly doesn’t fit the narrative that increasing school choice hurts public school students, at least not for this racial group.
Oh, I can already feel the Kentucky public school folks getting ready to yell, “It’s the money.” Surely Florida spends more on its public schools, right? WRONG!
According to Table 11 in the US Census Bureau’s 2018 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data, Summary Tables, in Fiscal Year 2018 (essentially the 2017-18 school year), Kentucky’s total Elementary-Secondary Revenue was $12,444 per pupil while Florida’s was only $10,715.
Even if we look at what the Census calls Total Current Spending, which only includes those expenses most directly related to classroom instruction, Kentucky spent $11,110 per pupil in 2018 while Florida only spent $9,346. See Table 1.
So, notably better public school reading performance for black students is found in a state with lots of school choice that spends notably less than Kentucky.
By the way, that old poverty excuse doesn’t work here either. I checked the NAEP Data Explorer (The source of the scores for Figure 1 as well) for student demographic data collected during the 2019 Grade 4 reading assessment. It turns out that Kentucky and Florida report essentially identical eligibility rates of about 80% for free and reduced cost school lunches for public school black students. While I have some reservations about the precise comparability of this NAEP data due to some non-standard reporting of lunch information from state to state, it doesn’t seem likely that the true figures would vary all that much. So, public school black students in Florida outscore their counterparts in Kentucky despite notable and similar poverty rates.
To sum this up, forget the stale arguments that school choice hurts public schools. Comparing choice-rich Florida to choice-devoid Kentucky shows that fable isn’t true. If Kentuckians really want to help their state’s black students, maybe it’s time to start paying attention to Florida’s example.
And, there is more evidence to back this story. It’s not just a tale about Grade 4 reading. To see that, click the “Read more” link.
Figure 2 shows the Grade 4 NAEP results for Florida and Kentucky public school black students in math. Once again, Kentucky lags behind Florida, a state with many school choice options for parents.
It wasn’t that way back in 1992, the first time State NAEP Math was administered to fourth graders. Kentucky’s black public school students scored 200 while Florida only posted a 189 score for its public school black students. That 11-point difference in 1992 was statistically significant, notably large, and in Kentucky’s favor. In 2019 the score difference was a statistically significant 10 points, but now favoring Florida. Again, this is a notably large difference. Florida came from 11 points behind to go 10 points ahead of Kentucky in an era when Florida school choice was growing dramatically.
Figure 3 shows the public school black student results for Florida and Kentucky in Grade 8 reading. State NAEP for Grade 8 reading started in 1998, considerably later than the other math and reading assessments and Kentucky’s and Florida’s black public school students’ scores were tied in that year as they were in 2003. But, by 2019 we see again that Florida’s public school black students have pulled ahead of Kentucky’s and once again the now 10-point difference in the 2019 scores is statistically significant as well as notably large.
Finally, Figure 4 shows the trends for NAEP Grade 8 math for both state’s black students in public schools. Again, it looks like Florida has moved from behind to ahead, but in this one case the 2019 scores are not statistically significantly different.
However, way back in 1990 Kentucky and Florida took part in the very first State NAEP ever given, and it was for Grade 8 math. In that year Kentucky’s public school black students outscored Florida’s by nine points, and that difference was statistically significant and indicated that Kentucky’s black students were nearly a year ahead of Florida’s in Grade 8 math. But, that lead has now vanished.
So even in Grade 8 NAEP math, Florida shows definite progress compared to Kentucky for public school black student performance, coming from behind to at least tie the Bluegrass State by 2019.
To close, forget all those stories about how granting students and their parents more school choice options, including options for private schooling, will destroy public schools. Florida has been, and still is, implementing all sorts of choice options, and along the way black students who remain in that state’s public schools have not been losing out. In fact, they have generally moved ahead of black public school students in Kentucky, which has virtually no school choice at all.
And, all the while, Florida has surpassed Kentucky with far less average education financing and generally equivalent student poverty, as well.
Tech Note: The scores used to assemble Figures 1 to 4 and the other NAEP-related data were obtained from the online NAEP Data Explorer.