August 5, 2010

Success from the Sunshine State When Illinois schools are failing, it’s time to copy Florida’s winning strategies
“It’s known that states decide how many prisons to build based on third-grade reading scores. However, we as a society are not lifting a finger to change the system...I cannot sit back and watch so many of our poor and minority children who live on the South and West Sides enter high school reading below grade level.” So wrote the Reverend Senator James Meeks in a 2009 Chicago Tribune essay, in which the South Side pastor and Illinois Senate education committee chairman threw open the doors to bold, bi-partisan education solutions.1 In the months since, Illinois has been home to an intense debate over school reform. A school voucher bill co-authored by Sen. Meeks has received a great deal of attention, and for good reason. It would give parents in Chicago’s worst and most overcrowded schools the option to send their children to a private school instead. But beyond his support for school choice, the Reverend Senator has been emphatic on a larger point: we should be willing to support any reform that improves education for families who for generations have no choice other than failing public schools. Those serious in meeting Meeks’s challenge will look to Florida. For decades, teenage illiteracy has plagued southern states, just as in Chicago. Beginning twelve years ago, Florida implemented a series of reforms designed to improve the lives of disadvantaged and minority students. School choice has been a cornerstone policy of the plan. But Florida has also expanded online learning, refused to promote 3rd graders who cannot read, diversified its teaching ranks through more modern teacher certification programs, and created an understandable system of grading schools that tells parents and taxpayers whether their children and money should stay put or be sent elsewhere. At first, these reforms were disquieting to those who were part of the status quo, but the results are astounding. Over a twelve year period in which the nation’s and Illinois’s fourth grade reading scores have remained flat or barely improved, Florida’s elementary school performance has climbed dramatically. In 1998, the year in which Florida began introducing its bold school reforms, the state’s test scores were some of the lowest in the country. Florida now ranks sixth in the country on the Nation’s Report Card for 4th grade reading, published by the U.S. Department of Education. Florida’s improvement is almost entirely due to an incredible increase in the scores of their low-income and minority students. The following pages contain data to prove this point.

Education Brief

Collin Hitt is the Director of Education Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. Ashley Muchow, a Koch Associate at the Illinois Policy Institute, assisted in the research and writing of this brief.

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In 1998, Florida’s low-income student scores ranked 33rd out of 40 states that were graded on the Nation’s Report Card. By 2009, federal education officials were ranking all fifty states – and Florida’s low-income student test scores were the best in the country. Illinois ranked 42nd. In fact, Florida’s low-income students’ reading scores are almost in line with those of Illinois students of all income groups combined. If Illinois’s low-income students scored as well as Florida’s in 2009, our state’s overall ranking in 4th grade reading could potentially leap from 30th place into the top five. Florida has moved from a state in crisis to the most exciting place in the country for school reform. Yet advocates in the Sunshine State will tell you that their work is not done. State lawmakers are expanding key reforms that most states, including Illinois, have yet to even try. So, if the success of the last twelve years is any indication, Florida’s test scores and graduation rates for minority and low-income students will continue to rise. Illinois’s Sen. Meeks puts it perfectly: “When a child reaches high school at a fifth-grade reading level, society offers no hope, no future and illiteracy as a way of life because we have failed that child for eight years.” Without bold policy changes, Illinois will continue to fail students whose only opportunity for success in life is the education they receive in our schools. Florida now does a better job than any state in teaching its low-income youngsters how to read, and thus provides a road map for Illinois. The following pages show why anyone serious in improving the lives of our state’s poor and minority children should follow it. The Data on School Performance The following policy brief draws upon highquality research and data. When understood properly, the data on Florida’s progress virtually argue for themselves: Florida’s reforms are working for their students, and struggling states would do well to enact similar policies. As such, it is important to provide a brief explanation of the data used herein. Since 1968, a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tracked national trends in reading and math skills within public schools. One of the oldest standardized tests in America, it is still one of the most respected. It is an objective measure of public education, and has not been watered down (as has happened with Illinois’s self-created tests). Beginning in 1988, NAEP was expanded to track state-level results. All 50 states issue the NAEP test to a large, representative group of public school students and report the results to the U.S. Department of Education. The state-level results are published as The Nation’s Report Card. The Report Card allows researchers and policymakers to compare states and student groups on an apples-to-apples basis. For example, not only can we compare Illinois to Florida, but we can compare Hispanic students in Illinois to Hispanic students in Florida, or Hispanic students in Illinois to White students in Illinois. So on and so forth. Using the Nation’s Report Card, several researchers have observed wildly different trends between states in reading and math results. This report looks at the difference in trends between Florida, Illinois, and the nation as a whole. The following pages present data from the Nation’s Report Card on fourth grade reading. The test is scored on a 0 to 500 scale. Rarely do any student groups score as low as 150 or as high as 350 during the fourth grade. In the following graphs, you will observe frequent year-to-year changes of 2 and 3 points. These typically do not represent significant changes in reading skills. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “The average score for students in Illinois in 2009 (219) was not significantly different from their average score in 2007 (219) and was not significantly different from their average score in 2003 (216).”2 However, larger differences in performance do represent significant changes. For example, the 20 point gains made by Florida 4th graders

Florida’s low-income students’ reading scores are almost in line with those of Illinois students of all income groups combined.

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between 1998 and 2009 represents as much as two grade levels worth of learning. The tables on the following pages tell a compelling story of a state that has made significant, historic gains. Florida has moved from an academic bottom feeder to a relatively high-performing state. And it has done so on the strength of student groups who, all too often, are left behind – especially in Illinois. If policymakers in Illinois are interested in improving our schools, then they will heed the following data. Details about Florida’s winning public policies are discussed immediately following the review of statistics from Florida, Illinois and the nation as a whole.

Florida has moved from an academic bottom feeder to a relatively highperforming state. And it has done so on the strength of student groups who, all too often, are left behind.

Page 4 of 19 Graph 1: All Students
The improvement in Florida’s student performance is irrefutable. From 2003 to 2009, Florida’s lowincome 4th grade reading scores saw a jump greater than that in any other state. While the nation as a whole made slow progress, Florida witnessed dramatic improvement in student achievement; by 2009, 36 percent of Florida’s 4th-graders were scoring proficient and above, compared to only 33 percent nationally and 32 in Illinois. As the following pages show, Florida’s galloping academic performance is being spurred by its minority and disadvantaged students.

From 2003 to 2009, Florida’s lowincome 4th grade reading scores saw a jump greater than that in any other state.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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Perhaps the most remarkable trend in Florida’s schools has been with Hispanic students. In 2009, Florida’s Hispanic students scored an average of 223, nearly 20 points above the national average of 205 (and 203 in Illinois). With their 223 scale score, Hispanic students in Florida also now demonstrate higher reading skills than Illinois students as a whole (219, see page 4). Moreover, the 18 point gap between Illinois’s and Florida’s 4th grade reading scores represents somewhere between one and two grade levels worth of learning.

Hispanic students in Florida also now demonstrate higher reading skills than Illinois students as a whole.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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African American students are on the rise, like almost every group of students in Florida. The percentage of African American students in Florida considered proficient in reading has doubled since 1998. African American students in Illinois and Florida had roughly similar test scores in 2003. Today the gap between Florida’s black fourth graders and Illinois’s represents almost a grade level worth of learning. There is little doubt that Florida’s bold reforms have had some of their heaviest impacts on minority communities.

The gap between Florida’s black fourth graders and Illinois’s represents almost a grade level worth of learning.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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Many of the challenges affecting minority students stem from poverty. Florida’s school reforms – especially its school choice and charter school programs – aim firmly at improving the lives of economically disadvantaged students. The table below shows that Florida’s poverty fighting school reforms have had success, benefiting poor families of every ethnic background. The percentage of Florida’s low-income students scoring at and above proficient jumped more than twofold; increasing from 12 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2009.

Florida’s poverty fighting school reforms have had success, benefiting poor families of every ethnic background.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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Florida’s education policies place a special emphasis on students who begin the year behind their peers. Often, this puts the onus on students with learning disabilities and other impediments. Furthermore, as discussed on page 12, Florida offers school vouchers to any student with a disability. The resulting competition between schools for disabled students has led public schools to improve their results and practices, according to scholarly research. In 2009, Florida’s disabled students yielded an average composite score of 204, significantly greater than the 190 scored nationally and 188 in Illinois. Since 1998, Florida’s special education student scores have increased a remarkable 34 points. Most of that progress was made between 2003 and 2009, when Florida’s scores rose by 20 points while Illinois’s only improved by 5.

Florida offers school vouchers to any student with a disability.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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Florida and Illinois both have very heavy enrollments of English Language Learners. In both states, most of those students speak Spanish as a native language. Research has shown that students who are or become bi-lingual have a far greater chance of academic success than students who speak only English or, conversely, no English at all. Florida’s numbers top both the nation and Illinois; in 2009, 13 percent of Florida’s English Language Learners were scoring at and above proficient, compared to 7 percent in Illinois and 6 percent nationally. No doubt, these numbers must improve nationwide. But Florida is on an unmistakable upward trend, improving their scale scores by 21 points since 2002 while the nation has improved by 5.

Florida’s numbers top both the nation and Illinois.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000. Florida English Language Learners NAEP scores unavailable in 1998.

SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

Page 10 of 19 Graph 7: Students in the Bottom 25th Percentile
Schools in Florida receive “A through F” grades based on student performance. Weighted heavily in that grading system is the performance of students who enter the year testing at or below the 25th percentile in their class. It’s a simple fact that some students will test in the 25th percentile while others will test in the 99th; the challenge to schools is how well they teach all students, including those who are behind their peers. Today, students in the 25th percentile in Florida are scoring a remarkable 25 scale points higher than their peers in 1998. In fact, students in Florida’s 25th percentile in 2009 have scores comparable to students in the state’s 50th percentile in 1998 (206 to 211).

The challenge to schools is how well they teach all students, including those who are behind their peers.

NOTE: NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000. SOURCE: Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.

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Bold public policy has led to a remarkable turnaround in Florida’s public schools. As the previous pages show, Florida’s 4th graders are now the most promising class of young students in the country. The state is the national champion of early literacy for low-income students. But Florida’s successes are not limited to the early years, nor to reading. Florida’s 8th grade reading scores climbed from 37th in 2003 to 11th in 2009. Within the same time period, Illinois managed to lose ground, dropping in rank from 25th to 35th. Student performance in mathematics improved as well. Florida’s 4th grade low-income mathematics scores rank 8th in the nation; Illinois ranks 8th from the bottom, at 42nd. In 2003, 11 percent of Florida’s low-income 8th-graders were scoring proficient or above; come 2009, 29 percent met this achievement level, placing the state within the nation’s top ten. The winning policies in Florida were bipartisan, efficient, and implemented at the state level. Most importantly, they focused on changing the K-12 school system itself without increasing the burden on taxpayers or creating new child welfare programs that claim to obviate the need for education reform. In Illinois, insofar as education policy has changed since 1998, it has largely followed two paths: increasing spending on K-12 education and expanding government-funded preschool programs. The presumption of our state’s policy priorities is that our current education system needs greater inputs – in terms of students and money – as opposed to a shakeup of how schools are managed and chosen. Illinois’s graduation rates and its scores on the Nation’s Report Card have largely remained flat. Aside from a successful but small charter school movement in Illinois, little has been done to challenge the existing system. Illinois has, on average, spent $1,534 more per student than Florida over the past ten years. Our state’s early childhood education programs have consistently been rated highly in terms of access and quality by groups like the National Institute for Early Education Research, while Florida’s have scored much lower. Meanwhile, Florida’s test scores have skyrocketed—and Illinois’s have stagnated. In Florida, several policies were implemented that fundamentally changed how families viewed and selected their schools. Each of those policies can be implemented in Illinois, and each is summarized below. The Foundation for Excellence in Education was founded in Tallahassee in 2007 to help other states hoping to reverse the fortunes of their own schools. Staffed by Florida education veterans and chaired by former governor Jeb Bush, the foundation outlines the reforms that have proven vital to Florida’s success. Grading School Performance Schools in Florida are issued grades based upon the performance of their students. It’s a system that parents can understand, with schools receiving an A, B, C, D or F. Called the A Plus Program, the grading system has been essential to Florida’s dramatic improvements in teaching disadvantaged students how to read. The grading system heavily weights the performance of students whose reading skills at the beginning of the year rank in the bottom 25 percent of their class. In reading and math, schools are scored evenly on three measures: proficiency for all students, the progress made by all students over the course of the school year, and progress for disadvantaged students. Under this system, it is impossible for schools to coast on the performance of students who enter the classroom already performing at relatively high levels – and it is impossible to mask the stagnation of disadvantaged students who have fallen behind. Schools that receive low grades are placed under certain sanctions, and students in those schools are eligible for targeted services. In persistently failing schools, for example, parents have been given special vouchers to send their children elsewhere, if they so choose. This has exposed low performing schools to increased scrutiny and competition – and the research is unanimous that “D” and“F” schools have gotten better as a result.3

In Florida, several policies were implemented that fundamentally changed how families viewed and selected their schools.

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The idea of sanctioning schools is controversial to many education interest groups, including some school choice supporters who oppose giving central office bureaucrats control of a school system that they believe should be entirely decentralized in its governance. But an argument over sanctions should be considered separately from an argument over an A through F school grading system. Issuing grades in Illinois schools is necessary and overdue. There should be little controversy in providing parents with factual information in a format that they can use and understand – which is what Florida’s A Plus program does at its best. At present, the quality and readability of school performance data in Illinois is laughable. School performance is communicated to parents as the percentage of students “meeting or exceeding state standards.” Even if the term “meeting state standards” held meaning for most parents, research has now shown that Illinois’s official standards are bunk. Fewer than half of all students who met state standards in 4th grade reading would be considered proficient on the Nation’s Report Card. In math, a federal Department of Education study determined that Illinois had some of the lowest standards in the country.4 Happily, however, developments are taking place that could allow Illinois policymakers to create a grading system identical to Florida’s. Illinois education officials will soon begin tracking individual student performance over time through a new data system. Also, as part of a national movement towards common testing standards, Illinois and Florida might both soon be using the same standardized test. As Florida adapts its grading rubric for a new test, Illinois can simply use the exact same methodology to grade its own schools. With reliable tests and a new data system – called the P-20 Longitudinal Data System – set to be in place by 2013, Illinois researchers will possess the tools needed to measure and rate its schools as Florida does. State and local policymakers should then begin grading schools in a way that puts a special emphasis on the education of poor and disadvantaged children, or turn the data over to someone who will. Again, sanctions and interventions aside, this will make our public schools much more transparent. Ratings and rankings are important in public affairs, as in commercial life. A grading system would inform the decisions of all involved in Illinois’s school system. The more that parents and taxpayers understand about the quality of their schools, the better decisions they can make in both the school year and election day. School Voucher Programs Since 1998, Florida has created three school choice programs that allow parents to receive vouchers to attend private schools should they so choose. The oldest such program is the McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities. The two other programs have now effectively been combined into one, providing vouchers to low-income students. The programs allow parents to easily opt out of their assigned school and into a private school they feel better suits their child. Each program has been demonstrated to improve outcomes and practices within the public schools – increased competition for students has been a catalyst for statewide improvement in student learning. Under the state’s McKay Scholarship Program, any special education student in Florida can receive a voucher to attend the private or public school of their choice. Should a family elect to send their special needs child to a private school, the voucher is worth the lesser of two amounts (either the private school’s tuition or the per pupil spending in their home school district). Polling data has repeatedly shown that parents whose students use the vouchers are much happier with their new schools. Students who use the vouchers are 89 percent less likely to be teased or bullied and 75 percent less likely to be assaulted, according to their parents. Researcher Jay Greene found that, as a result of the program, public schools in Florida are less likely to diagnose a student with a learning disability, helping to stem a frenetic national trend of placing a special needs label on students who have for some reason

Charter schools in Chicago are changing public education for the better, often dramatically.

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fallen behind their peers.5 As shown on page 8, special needs students in Florida’s public schools have experienced remarkable gains over the last decade. As part of Florida’s A Plus accountability program described above, students attending schools that received F grades twice in a four-year period were automatically offered vouchers. Dissatisfied parents could, if they wished, use the voucher to send their children to a private school instead. The program had two effects: it gave parents an escape hatch and, consequently, provided failing schools with a strong incentive to improve in order to keep more parents from leaving. Ten separate studies have shown that the competition from this program improved test scores within Florida’s public schools, to say nothing of the improvements seen by students who actually used the vouchers.6 The voucher program in many ways resembles a policy currently being pursued in Illinois by Rev. Senator James Meeks, chairman of the Senate education committee. Sen. Meeks’s legislation, Senate Bill 2494, proposes to offer vouchers all of the 28,000 students in the bottom-performing ten percent of Chicago’s elementary schools, as well as students in the district’s most overcrowded high-poverty schools. Florida’s track record shows that this program could improve the performance of public schools in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. In 2008, the voucher component of the A Plus program was folded into another longstanding school choice program called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students participating in the program receive vouchers (called “scholarships”). But the program is open to any student in the state, if funds are available. The program has a different structure than straightforward voucher programs like the McKay Scholarship fund or the A Plus program. It is run by a private foundation and funded through donations from Florida businesses that in turn can receive a dollar-fordollar tax credit for their contributions to a scholarship fund. The program has proven immensely popular, and was recently authorized to rapidly grow from year to year, perhaps becoming the largest school choice program in the country. The state’s fiscal arm estimates that the program saves taxpayers $39 million per year, because the scholarships awarded are capped at a per pupil level far lower than what taxpayers would otherwise spend educating the same children at public schools. And perhaps most importantly, the program was shown in a 2010 study from Northwestern University professor David Figlio to spur academic improvement in public schools.7 As the program expands, not only will more parents have a new choice of schools, but Florida’s public schools will face more of the healthy competition that has already helped them improve. Charter Schools Statewide Charter schools, first and foremost, provide parents with a new choice within the public school system. They are public schools run by outside non-profit organizations, teacher teams, or even universities. The schools are formed through charter agreements. Charter school law allows a trade-off: the organizations that run charter schools agree to be accountable to rigorous “charter” contracts in exchange for freedom from the red tape (including forced unionization) that often hamstrings struggling public schools. The freedom leads charter schools to try innovative new approaches and permits them to quickly adjust to unforeseen challenges. While Illinois and Florida each permit charter schools to open, Florida’s charter school sector is much larger and in some measures more successful than Illinois’s. In Illinois, charter schools provide a rare bright spot in Chicago’s public school system. With enrollment open to any student and decided by random lottery, the city’s 81 charter school campuses together outperform similar schools throughout the city and state, according to every robust study on the issue. Yet Illinois’s charter schools are rarely found outside of Chicago – only 13 operate outside of the city. The primary reason why charter schools are absent from downstate communities is that school districts there are

In Illinois, charter schools provide a rare bright spot in Chicago’s public school system.

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too small to take on the task of authorizing charter schools. Illinois has 869 school districts. Their small size can be beneficial when making many decisions, but the limitations imposed by their size have led the state and districts themselves to create hundreds of intermediate service agencies – new bureaucracies with the scale to handle services ranging from vocational schooling to special education services to regulatory compliance. Charter school authorizing is a perfect example of a function that small districts simply aren’t well suited to handle. Florida, on the other hand, has organized its schools into much larger county-wide districts. By contrast, that state has 413 charter schools, a number that increases year to year.8 Florida families have greater access to charter schools because their school districts often have the willingness and scale to issue and oversee charter schools. Charter schools in the Sunshine State received an A grade almost two thirds of the time on the state’s school report card, and the achievement gap for minority students is typically smaller than at traditional public schools. But most notably, Florida charter schools have done a far superior job in graduating their students from high school. This policy brief has focused primarily on Florida’s progress in early literacy, but Florida has also made the strongest gains since 2002 on Education Week’s measure of state graduation rates. A 2008 study from RAND Corporation showed that merely attending a charter high school in Florida improved a student’s chances of graduating from high school by 15 points, on average.9 The same study showed that Chicago charter schools have enjoyed similar success. Communities across Illinois could use a similar boost: Illinois’s graduation rates outside of Chicago have been flat or even declined in the last decade. Florida school districts are typically much larger than school districts in Illinois. Size and scale are essential assets to quality charter school authorizing – it’s no coincidence that over ninety percent of Illinois’s charter school campuses are operating in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools is the largest district in the Midwest, which gives it the scale needed to authorize multiple charter schools. A 2009 report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers found that best practices were far more likely to be used by authorizing agencies that oversee 10 or more or charter schools.10 Most school districts in Illinois do not consist of 10 schools, and all but a handful have fewer than 30. A vast majority of Illinois school districts cannot sustain a high quality office for charter school authorizing. They are simply too small. Suitable large-scale organizations that exist in Illinois could serve as charter school authorizers if state policy was changed to allow them to do so. Public universities in Illinois have shown an interest in authorizing charter schools, a practice which is common in other states and particularly successful in New York, Michigan and Missouri.11 Moreover, an official Illinois state task force recently recommended that the Illinois State Board of Education be given the capacity to expand upon its nominal authority to issue new charters.12 Illinois could implement these policies without threatening the control that local school districts have over existing schools, and new schools could be created to provide parents with new and better options. Expansive Online Learning There are cracks in our school system, and students fall through them every day. Online learning is filling those cracks when little else has worked. Students can sit at a computer, have constant access to a real teacher via phone and e-mail, receive help from a coach in the room with them, and learn with the help of software that moves at their own pace – all for the same cost of providing them with a traditional education with an instructor at the front of the room. The Center for Digital Learning ranked 25 states based on their online learning policies in 2009. Florida came in first. Illinois, last. Online learning can help dropouts recover credits – and even earn a high school diploma

Charter school authorizing is a perfect example of a function that small districts simply aren’t well suited to handle.

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– at small learning centers that adapt to their schedules. Gifted students can use online learning to energetically consume content. Homebound and hospitalized students can have schooling brought to them. Rural students can have access to previously unavailable foreign language and advanced placement courses. Florida supports a statewide online learning initiative called the Florida Virtual School, which enrolls more than 200,000 students in individual courses that count for credit at the public schools where they’re enrolled. The state is also home to dozens of full and part-time virtual school programs at the district level, and the non-profit Connections Academy operates the Florida Full Time Program, open to any student in the state. One of the most innovative parts of Florida’s online learning policy is that virtual education providers only receive full funding for courses that students successfully complete. Every student in Illinois should have access to a full and part-time virtual education programs. These take on a number of forms: statewide platforms like the Florida Virtual School that beam content into thousands of public schools, and full-time programs where students can learn from a distance or beside other students in a small learning center. Ending Early Social Promotion Remember the following quotation on the first page of this policy brief, from pastor and Illinois lawmaker James Meeks: “When a child reaches high school at a fifth-grade reading level, society offers no hope, no future and illiteracy as a way of life because we have failed that child for eight years.” One reason why our children reach high school far below grade level is that our schools advance them to future grades regardless of how much they’ve learned. It’s a practice called social promotion, and a recent Florida law put a stop to it in the early elementary years. In 2002, Florida lawmakers took the bold step of requiring schools to hold back third graders who scored at the lowest levels on state reading tests. A 2006 study by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters showed that the policy was a resounding success – in fact, students who were held back were reading better than their former classmates who scored slightly higher and just made the cut.13 Various other schools and districts across the country have sought to end social promotion at the higher grade levels, Chicago among them. The effectiveness of those programs is mixed, according to the scholarly research. And so it seems that the clear opportunity to improve literacy in teenagers is to improve their reading skills when they are young. Florida’s 4th graders have seen their reading scores skyrocket, and the state’s policy ending early social promotion has demonstrably contributed to that. In 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation ending 3rd grade social promotion in her state. Governor Mitch Daniels has proposed to do the same in Indiana. Illinois should be next in line. Attracting Diverse Teachers Illinois has a racial gap in its teaching profession, and it affects academic results. Across the state, 29 percent of working age adults are Hispanic or black, compared to only 9.6 percent of its public school teachers. This 19.4 percentage point gap is the second only to New York. A 2009 essay by Harvard professor Paul Peterson showed that teacher certification rules are often to blame for racial disparities in the teaching force.14 In Illinois, as in many states, aspiring teachers must take a large number of courses prescribed by Illinois law in order to become certified. These rules favor teacher colleges and other groups seeking to control the talent pipeline into Illinois schools. But other states have created alternative routes to certification that are more flexible in coursework requirements while still testing content knowledge and requiring student teaching. Peterson’s 2009 essay identified 21 states with genuine alternative routes to teacher certification; Illinois is not one of them. Of the 10 states whose teacher workforce most closely matched the racial makeup of their

One reason why our children reach high school far below grade level is that our schools advance them to future grades regardless of how much they’ve learned.

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total population, 9 were states with alternative certification. Peterson also found that states with alternative certification programs had much higher gains on the Nation’s Report Card, including Florida. Alternative teaching certification routes allow established professionals who graduated with non-teaching degrees to transition into a career in the classroom. It’s worth noting that, within Illinois, staffing flexibility has been a benefit for charter schools, which can fill up to one in four teaching positions with uncertified but qualified professionals. The research is unanimous that Illinois charter schools, using their diverse teaching faculties, are outperforming other public schools.15 and minority students learning little and mostly dropping out of high school. But graduation rates have improved and test scores are skyrocketing. Florida’s youngest generation of students has some of the best reading scores in the country. The state’s schools are on the rise, primarily because of their solid progress with low-income, disadvantaged and minority students – progress made possible through sound state policies. Illinois can adopt all of Florida’s policies. Future Illinois Policy Institute publications will explore each in further depth, with concrete steps for making them law. Those policies are: Grading School Performance by awarding schools an A, B, C, D or F based not only on overall performance but especially upon the advances that disadvantaged students make over the course of the school year. School Voucher Programs for poor students, students in failing schools, and students with disabilities. Charter Schools Statewide to create new choices of innovative schools within the public school system for dozens of Illinois communities. Expansive Online Learning that can fit niche needs within every household and community, all at once serving dropouts, gifted students, hospital-and-homebound children or any other child looking for an education that meets their unique time and learning demands. Ending Early Social Promotion by keeping 3rd grade students who test far below grade level from being advanced to a higher grade where they will fall further behind. Attracting Diverse Teachers from a variety of economic, ethnic and academic backgrounds. In Illinois, bold reformers like Sen. James Meeks have issued a challenge: present bipartisan ideas that will provide education to all students, especially those left helpless within our current education system. Republicans and Democrats should answer his call. They should

Every school in Illinois should have the same staffing leeway as the state’s charter schools.

Every school in Illinois should have the same staffing leeway as the state’s charter schools. And every aspiring teacher in Illinois should have the same freedom as they would in Florida, to choose a program that best prepares them for a career in public education. This is sound, sensible policy. As Peterson concluded, “Genuine alternative certification opens the door to more minority teachers, and student learning is more rapid in states where the reform has been introduced.”16 Conclusion Florida has given more and more school choices to its families, especially to those with limited means, those whose children might be stuck in a failing school, and those who have children with special needs. Sunshine State policymakers are unafraid to give tough grades to schools that allow some students to languish behind their peers. If young students are reading far below grade level, Florida law keeps them from advancing to a higher grade where they will fall even farther behind. Online learning is a common element in Florida homes and classrooms. And, thanks to the state’s multiple routes to teacher certification, established professionals are allowed to move into teaching careers. These policies have borne results. In 1998, Florida was a typical Southern state, with poor

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look to Florida’s remarkable record of success and the policies that made it possible. And they should implement those policies in Illinois. Acknowledgement The authors would like to thank Dr. Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, for his encouragement to undertake this project. Dr. Ladner has for years heralded Florida’s remarkable gains and the reforms that made them possible.

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Endnotes 1 “Their Blood Is On Our Hands,” by James Meeks, Chicago Tribune, October 29, 2009. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-10-29/ news/0910280612_1_white-eighth-graders-chicagopublic-schools-chicago-teachers-union 2 The Nation’s Report Card, “Reading, 2009 State Snapshot Report: Illinois,” published by the U.S. Department of Education: http://nces.ed.gov/ nationsreportcard/pdf/stt2009/2010460IL4.pdf 3 Collin Hitt, 2010. “A Rising Tide: School Vouchers and Their History of Improving Public Schools,” published by the Illinois Policy Institute: http://illinoispolicy.org/news/article. asp?ArticleSource=2473 4 Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin, 2009. “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007,” published by the U.S. Department of Education: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/ studies/2010456.asp 5 Jay P. Greene and Stuart Buck, 2010. “The Case for Special Education Vouchers,” Education Next, Winter 2010, Volume 1, Number 1: http:// educationnext.org/the-case-for-special-education-vouchers 6 Collin Hitt, 2010. “A Rising Tide: School Vouchers and Their History of Improving Public Schools,” published by the Illinois Policy Institute: http://illinoispolicy.org/news/article. asp?ArticleSource=2473 7 David Figlio and Cassandra Hart, 2010. “The Competitive Effect of Means Tested Vouchers,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Researcher, April 2010: http://www. google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF8&rlz=1T4DKUS_enUS264US264&q=figlio+fl orida+vouchers 8 Center for Education Reform, www. charterschoolresearch.com. 9 Ron Zimmer, Brian Gill, Kevin Booker, Stephane Lavertu, Tim R. Sass, John Witte, 2008. “Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition,” published as a monograph by the RAND Corporation: http:// www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG869/ 10 The State of Charter School Authorizing: 2nd Annual Report on NACSA’s Authorizer Survey,” published by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers: http://www.qualitycharters.org/ images/stories/2009_Facts_Report.pdf 11 Illinois State Board of Education, Independent Charter School Authorizer Task Force. “Final Report, Appendix E” published by the Illinois State Board of Education: http://isbe.net/charter/pdf/final_task_ force_report.pdf 12 Illinois State Board of Education, Independent Charter School Authorizer Task Force. “Final Report,” published by the Illinois State Board of Education: http://isbe.net/charter/pdf/final_task_ force_report.pdf 13 Marcus Winters and Jay P. Greene, 2006. “Getting Ahead By Staying Behind: An Evaluation of Florida’s Program to End Social Promotion,” Education Next, Spring 2006, Vol. 6, No. 2: http:// educationnext.org/getting-ahead-by-staying-behind/ 14 Daniel Nadler and Paul Peterson, 2009. “What Happens When States Have Genuine Alternative Certification?” Education Next, Vol. 9, No. 1: http://educationnext.org/what-happens-when-stateshave-genuine-alternative-certification 15 Collin Hitt, 2009. “Charting the Course: Illinois Charter Schools Offer a Proven Solution to the State’s Dropout Problem,” published by the Illinois Policy Institute: http://illinoispolicy.org/news/article. asp?ArticleSource=1511 16 Daniel Nadler and Paul Peterson, 2009. “What Happens When States Have Genuine Alternative Certification?” Education Next, Vol. 9, No. 1: http://educationnext.org/what-happens-when-stateshave-genuine-alternative-certification Appendix A: Data Sources for Graphs 1 through 7

Page 19 of 19 Appendix A: Data Sources for Graphs 1 through 7
Nation’s Report Card Reading Scores collected from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments, http://nces. ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata. NAEP Reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. Illinois NAEP scores begin in 2003; scores were unavailable in 2000 and reporting standards were not met in 1998 and 2002. Florida NAEP scores unavailable in 2000. Florida English Language Learners NAEP scores unavailable in 1998.