Florida scholar didn’t do homework before dismissing school “vouchers”


David Colburn is a respected former University of Florida provost and progressive academic who should have done more homework before he blithely characterized those who support private school options as salesmen and hucksters. His recent commentary in the state’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, rather pointedly ignored important evidence in his own backyard.

Dr. Colburn is good thinker on education issues, but somehow managed to treat all school vouchers as though they are inherently unaccountable. “There is something basically wrong when public funds are earmarked for these private schools,” he wrote, “and the state fails to insist on accountability measures for student achievement outcomes.”

That assumption is demonstrably false, and he need look no farther than his own state. The state’s first voucher program, which was declared unconstitutional in 2006, required students to take the state test. The current pre-K voucher that served 145,551 4-year-olds last year requires pre- and post-academic evaluations that are used to rate providers.

Lincoln Tamayo, who runs the highly successful Academy Prep Centers of Tampa and St. Petersburg that serve underprivileged middle school students, was also quick to note in a letter to the editor that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship serving 49,000 low-income students has required nationally norm-referenced tests since 2006. The test scores for Tamayo’s students, who are treated to an intensive six-day-a-week, 11-months-a-year program, reveal both year-to-year academic gains and 8th grade reading and math scores in the 70th and 76th percentile range.

There is ample room for principled debate over whether the current testing approach for these private options is sufficient to assure that students are making academic progress. For example, there are certainly challenges in trying to compare the test results of low-income students in private schools with their low-income colleagues remaining in public schools, in part because the scholarship students tend to be much poorer.

But Dr. Colburn instead seemed content to assert that vouchers “court disaster,” as though every one of these programs is flying blind. His lack of intellectual rigor was, needless to say, disappointing.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.