Dr. Matthew Ladner

Senators McCain and Obama are racing down the stretch of the 2008 Presidential race with substantially different ideas about how to improve American education.

Hopefully the next President will draw lessons from the 50 states currently serving as laboratories of education reform. Florida, in particular, has enjoyed enormous success in boosting both early childhood literacy and the percentage of minority students prepared college.

Florida’s education reforms have slashed fourth grade illiteracy by 32 percent in ten years. During the same period, the percentage of Florida students scoring “Proficient” on the Nation’s Report Card’s fourth grade reading test increased by 54 percent and the percentage scoring “Advanced” doubled.

Minority students have been a large contributing factor to that success. Florida’s Hispanic students now outscore the statewide averages for all students in 15 states on national fourth grade reading tests, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Florida’s African-American students outscore two statewide averages--Louisiana and Mississippi--and are within striking distance of several others.

Florida’s lawmakers achieved these gains with a combination of policies: standards and accountability, instructional reform, expanded parental choice, and alternative teacher certification.

But Florida’s education reformers did not stop at improving childhood literacy. They have also prepared more minority children for college. Governor Jeb Bush pushed the One Florida Initiative, which replaced race-based affirmative action with effective classroom instruction. The theory was better preparation rather than lower standards.

Working in partnership with the College Board the One Florida plan sought to increase the academic achievement of Florida’s students, particularly of demographic groups that are under-represented in universities. The comprehensive plan included professional development for teachers and counselors and free PSAT exams for students. Florida officials created AP Potential, a web-based tool to identify promising students for AP coursework.

The program relied heavily on incentives, creating an AP Teacher Bonus, $50 for every student who passed the test, up to $2,000. The program also created an incentive for the school, an additional $650 per student who passed an AP exam. Florida officials carefully wrote this bonus into the funding formula so that it went to the school, not to the school district.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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