Florida OSP once led schools to reclassify weak students, economist finds

An expansion of what remains of the Opportunity Scholarship in Florida gives us an opportunity to highlight a report that has been largely overlooked but is notable for its implications of how Florida public schools once responded to the threat of vouchers.

As newspapers in Florida reported today, a bill is advancing in the Legislature that expands the definition of a “failing” public school for the purposes of allowing students to transfer to a different school. While most papers called this an expansion of a “voucher” program, the program offers choices only among public schools; the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that the OSP’s private school option violated the state Constitutional provision for a “uniform” system of public schools.

But it is that now-defunct private option that piqued the interest of a researcher with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In a paper the Federal Reserve released this month, economist Rajashri Chakrabarti reported on her findings from the earliest years of the Opportunity Scholarship  after then-Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded the Legislature to establish the program in 1999. Chakrabarti wanted to see how public schools responded to the threat of a voucher in an “accountability regime.” Specifically, she wanted to know if F-graded schools faced with the threat of losing students were tempted to “manipulate their test-taking population.”

Under Florida’s accountability plan, two “F” grades within a four-year period meant that students were eligible for a school voucher. But test scores of special-education and limited-English-proficiency students were exempted from the computation of school grades. Chakrabarti asked, “Did this rule induce the threatened schools to reclassify some of their weaker students into these ‘excluded’ categories so as to remove them from the effective test-taking pool?”

The answer, she found, was a qualified “yes.” She did not find evidence that the voucher led schools to reclassify students into excluded special-education categories. But, she said, “I find evidence in favor of strategic reclassification into the excluded LEP category in high-stakes grade 4 and entry-grade 3.” In other words, before the Opportunity Scholarship was in place, Chakrabarti found that schools that would eventually be threatened by the voucher behaved no differently when they classified students in those grades. But in the first year of the program, there was a “statistically significant increase” in the percentage of students classified as having limited English proficiency. 

She writes:

These findings have important policy implications. They suggest that schools facing vouchers tied to accountability regimes might choose to behave strategically to classify their low-performing students into excluded categories in an effort to remove them from the effective test taking pool. It follows that when designing policies that incorporate vouchers (or sanctions) tied to accountability regimes, policymakers should be wary of creating exemptions for certain groups of students as they might create adverse incentives to game the system.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit