Executive Director, Jaquelin Hume Foundation
John F. Kirtley
President, Children First America
Jay P. Greene
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Ms. Huff: The late Jack Hume and his wife, Betty, established the Jaquelin Hume Foundation in 1962, and after his death in 1991, the trustees, who are family members, decided to spend down the corpus within their own lifetime to ensure respect for donor intent.
The late Mr. Hume declared he was interested “ . . . in the education of young people to be better citizens, to appreciate the value of our free enterprise, incentive-based economy, and to have sound values.” Sadly, few of these goals are being met by our current monopolistic education system. So when I joined the foundation in 1998, the trustees and I had a daylong retreat and determined that the best way for the foundation to meet its donor intent was to make leveraged investments in systematic K-12 education reform.
We have a two-pronged strategy. We support efforts, such as charter schools, that create alternatives to government schools, and we also support activities, such as the Institute for Justice’s litigation in defense of vouchers, that challenge the government’s education monopoly.
The foundation also supports state-based, free-market think tanks involved in school reform initiatives. We believe these state think tanks play a critical role in supporting the infrastructure needed to boost school reform, because the battle will be waged in the states. Florida, where the state Supreme Court recently struck down its voucher program for supposedly violating the state constitution, is a perfect case in point.
Mr. Kirtley: I like to quiz parents I meet. “What,” I ask them, “is public education?” They usually answer, “the public schools.” So I’ll respond, “Your definition of public education is a guaranteed seat in a government-run, government-owned school assigned to you by your zip code?”
They don’t like the sound of that, even though it’s our current system. They do like an alternative definition I suggest to them: “Public education is parents, using taxpayer dollars, being allowed to educate their children in the best way possible.”
Now who knows what is the best way possible? I think parents do, and what some people have a hard time coming to grips with is that all parents, whether they’re rich or poor, have the ability to make the best decisions for their kids.
Gisele is right: the states are the battlegrounds for school reform, and Florida is especially interesting. It has impressive public-private cooperation in school reform as well as lessons for private philanthropists of all types-individual donors, foundations, and corporations. Donors should ask themselves whether the accomplishments here couldn’t be duplicated in their own states.
Let me give you a brief overview of the state’s reform efforts. Florida parents have three school choice programs available for educating their children-in addition, that is, to the choice of sending their children to charter schools, which I see as part of the larger choice movement. The best-known program is the A-Plus program. Each year, every public school is graded A to F using mainly the results on the state’s standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). If a school receives a grade of F two years out of four, students are given two options. They can either transfer to a better-performing public school, which many have done, or they can receive a taxpayer-funded scholarship to attend a private school. This latter component of the program is the most controversial, and it’s the component critics have brought lawsuits against. It was first challenged on a funding issue, and now it’s being challenged on the separation of church and state issue; it may end up going to the U.S. Supreme Court. (If so, privately funded legal groups will help defend the program.)
What’s interesting about the A-Plus program is that the grading of schools has already focused tremendous attention on and brought large amounts of money to poorly performing schools. The money comes from several sources. Taxpayers bring some of it, because failing schools receive a lot more resources to help them turn around.
Funds are also coming from the corporate community. For example, only one school in all of Orlando received an F the first year. Universal Studios decided to adopt that school and give it $100,000 to improve. School leaders credit the state’s grading system, because without it the additional help would not likely have materialized.
Technically, the A-Plus program is not restricted to poor children, but it might as well be because all the failing schools are in low-income areas. To my surprise, the Department of Education of Florida actually gathered racial data on the students who have taken the scholarships to go to private schools and discovered the students are 45 percent African American, 45 percent Latino, and 10 percent other.
The end result? Achievement among minority students is way up. The percentages of minority students reading at grade level have risen from about the mid-twenties to the mid-forties, and those performing at their grade level in math has risen from the mid-teens to the mid-thirties. That’s still abysmal, but it shows dramatic improvement, and I think it’s a result of the pressure for reform this program has generated.
The second choice program available to Florida’s parents is the McKay Scholarship program for special-needs children, which has received shockingly little public attention. If you have a special-needs child in Florida, you can elect to receive taxpayer funds to send him to a private school. The decision is left entirely to the parents, who need only prove a child has special needs-not that the child is having any trouble learning. And the amount of the scholarship to the private school that accepts the child is fully equal to what would have been spent on the child in a public school. This generous program is not means tested: A millionaire in Sarasota whose child is diagnosed with mild attention-deficit disorder can receive the same taxpayer-funded scholarship to pay for tuition at private schools as a poor parent in Pensacola. The program started in 1999 and already has about 9,000 students taking advantage of it.
It astounds me that the McKay Scholarship program has not been legally challenged the way the A-Plus program has, even though the legal issues raised are exactly the same. Nor has it faced the same political obstacles. The program zipped through the Florida legislature with only four Democrats voting against it, even though the number of Florida children eligible for it is well over 300,000.
Why have the opponents of the A-Plus program not been as aggressive against the McKay Scholarship Program? Why have legislators who oppose vouchers for poor kids voted for a voucher program even millionaires can use? I would guess the household income of McKay Scholarship students is considerably higher than that of those benefiting from the A-Plus program, and so their parents are more politically potent.
Clearly, a program like McKay could be useful as a way to launch school choice in other states. We’ve spoken to governors who tell us, “It’s tough for me to support this sort of thing for the low-income kids, but I’d like to try this special-needs voucher because I think that could happen.”
Finally, Florida has one more school choice program that is very important: tax-credit scholarships. In our state, any company that pays state corporate income tax, whether or not it’s headquartered here, can receive a 100 percent tax credit for donations to a state-approved scholarship fund for low-income students. Essentially, companies redirect their tax payments to scholarship funds.
The scholarships take two forms. The first type allows a student to use the money to transfer to another public school across district lines. The state can pay for transportation costs up to $500 per year. For example, if you’re a low-income mom in St. Petersburg and you want to send your kid to a magnet school for the performing arts in Tampa, but you work and can’t take the time to drive your child to the school, the scholarship fund can help pay for the transportation to take that student. This is not the more popular option.
Parents overwhelmingly prefer the second type of scholarship. These scholarships allow a student to transfer from a public school to a private school, and the state pays the lesser of $3,500 or the tuition. The only criterion for the scholarship is that the student has to be poor enough to qualify for the free or reduced-cost lunch program and be attending a pubic school.
Donors who want to help poor parents and their kids can learn a lot from what’s happening in Florida. I am optimistic about the school choice programs here, because once people taste freedom and empowerment, it’s hard to take it away.
Mr. Greene: In the marketplace, companies anticipate future competition and adopt practices to stave it off. Could the same be true of schools? I researched this question in Florida by looking at the 78 schools that received one F on the state’s standardized test. If those schools were to receive a second F, their students would receive vouchers to go elsewhere. I looked to see if being under that threat led the schools to improve more than schools not facing the threat.
Sure enough, schools that were under the gun made extraordinary improvements. According to my study, Florida schools would need to increase per-pupil spending by $3,484 at previously failing schools to achieve the same improvement in math scores produced by the prospect of vouchers. This would be an increase of more than 60 percent in education spending. To realize the same gain as the A-Plus program accomplished in reading, Florida schools would need to spend $888 more per pupil, more than a 15 percent increase in per-pupil spending. To produce the same gain in writing scores, per-pupil spending would have to be increased by $2,805, more than a 50 percent increase.
Now I’m studying the success of Florida’s McKay Scholars program. Generating these studies will be crucial, because other states are considering duplicating the program. Anyone hoping to pass similar legislation will need facts to demonstrate that it will work.
Research on school reform is invaluable. If you read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Zelman, the recent landmark decision permitting vouchers to private schools, it’s clear that research made a difference. Justice O’Connor, the swing vote on the Court, relied heavily on empirical evidence on school choice in her decision to uphold vouchers. Without high-quality research, I’m not sure the outcome would have been the same.
And research doesn’t just influence the courts but also policymakers who are considering starting, repealing, or regulating programs. For example, the American Federation of Teachers just published a poorly done study of charter schools. Friends of charter schools need solid research to counter sloppy research and persuade open-minded people of charter schools’ value.