Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Accountability with a Kicker: Observations on the Florida A+ Accountability Plan

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Accountability with a Kicker: Observations on the Florida A+ Accountability Plan

Article excerpt

The A+ Accountability Plan in Florida predated NCLB but has similar provisions. Thus, the authors realized, a study of how the system has played out in Florida might allow us to see where NCLB is leading us.

IN 1999, FLORIDA implemented a major reform of its accountability system, called the A+ Accountability Plan. A unique aspect of the A+ Plan is its explicit attempt to invoke market forces by allowing students in low-performing schools that meet specified criteria to receive vouchers that can be redeemed at an eligible public or private school. It is this "opportunity scholarship" (the portion of the A+ Plan that allows for vouchers) that set the accountability system in Florida apart from that of any other state at that time.

Since then, the Supreme Court's Zelman decision ruled that using vouchers for religious private schools is permissible.1 In addition, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires that all schools failing to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) implement a program similar to the opportunity scholarships in that it would allow students to choose alternative public schools. In many ways, the accountability program begun by Florida in 1999 was a precursor to the type of accountability systems that NCLB is now requiring states to implement. Thus studying Florida's school and district responses to the provisions of the A+ Plan may yield important insights into what we should expect to see elsewhere.

Much of the controversy and debate over the passage of NCLB focused on its accountability and voucher provisions. Many of those in favor of such reforms argued that public schooling was (and is) a closed system, unlikely to change in any fundamental way without the "kicker" increased competition would provide. The basic argument was that competition would provide schools with a clear incentive either to perform well or to risk losing students to higher-quality alternatives offered at the same price.2 In short, the theory that competition can improve education presumes that inefficiencies resulting from the monopoly of the public school system are the cause of low performance in American education.3 For a variety of reasons, however, it is not at all clear that schools will respond to increased market competition in the same way that the classic competitive model predicts for industry. Most important, they may have trouble discerning what changes would be beneficial to students or implementing effective reforms.

The research we report here is part of a larger effort focusing on how schools in Florida are responding to a new accountability system with many of the same provisions as NCLB. We will briefly describe publicly reported information on school performance in Florida since the inception of the A+ Plan, and then, using evidence gathered from our case studies, we will attempt to provide a more nuanced picture of the program's effect on schools -- particularly the relationship between school accountability grades and the threat of vouchers.

The A+ Plan and School Performance

At the time it was implemented, the Florida voucher program was unique in that it was established by law as an integral part of the state's education accountability system. With the A+ Plan, students in schools that receive a grade of F in two out of any four years and currently have an F grade are eligible to receive vouchers that can be used at another, nonfailing public school or at a private school, including a religious school. Schools' grades are based on their students' performance on the FCATs (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests) -- the state tests in math, reading, and writing -- and on dropout rates. The value of the vouchers awarded for students to attend private schools in 2002-03 ranged from $3,463 to $4,311 for basic K-12 education.4 In short, the program is broad based, institutionalized, and reasonably well funded. (For further details on the Florida A+ Plan, see www. …

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