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Florida Schools Make Money the Old Fashioned Way

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

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.

The reformers didn’t stop there, either. Using Florida’s A-Plus designations, which assign letter grades to schools based upon overall student performance, One Florida provides an additional school bonus of $500 per student passing an AP exam for schools rated “D” or “F.”

Florida’s education reformers set high expectations and created rewards for success. The results have been extremely impressive.

The National Math and Science Initiative recently collected data on the number of Hispanic students passing an AP test per 1,000 Hispanic junior and senior high school students in each state. Florida led the nation with 78 out of every 1000 Hispanic students passing an AP test.

Do schools respond to incentives? You bet they do. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of Florida students passing AP tests increased by 154 percent. The number of Florida Hispanic students passing an AP exam more than tripled, from 5,611 to 18,882 students. The number of African American students passing AP exams also more than tripled, from 1,314 to 4,401. Florida achieved these results in response to what amounts to a tiny portion of the K-12 budget.

The next time the public school establishment in your state calls for additional resources, the question should be, “in return for what?”

In Florida schools and teachers make more money the old fashioned way, they earn it. The days of “provide money first, hope for results later” must come to an end, both in Washington and in our state capitals.

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