School & District Management

Board to Close Fla. ‘Voucher’ School

By Jessica L. Sandham — February 06, 2002 6 min read
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A.A. Dixon Elementary School in Pensacola, Fla., will likely be closing its doors for good this spring, three years after a state accountability program branded the school with an “F” label and offered its students private school vouchers.

Dixon drew national attention in 1999, when it became one of two Florida schools to lose students as part of the only statewide voucher program in the nation. Though the school has fallen victim to a mix of high overhead, state fiscal woes, and an enrollment drop that went beyond the modest direct impact of vouchers, the state’s distinctive twist on accountability set the stage for its fate.

And while local officials differ over the impact of the voucher policy, the role it may have played in the school’s looming closure will likely draw attention—particularly as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a voucher case from Cleveland this month.

“There was not declining enrollment before vouchers—our enrollment was up,” said the school’s principal, Judith Ladner. The combination of the F grade and the voucher attention, she said, “gave the community a bad impression about us.”

Even though Dixon Elementary’s state test scores have improved enough to keep the school from landing again on Florida’s list of failing schools, its enrollment has dropped by more than 25 percent—to 340—since 1999. That was the only year that Dixon pupils qualified for vouchers.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice research and advocacy group based in Washington, said that Dixon’s expected closure might ultimately be a positive development.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a school board to say let’s close a school that is not well-enrolled and that’s not very good,” Ms. Allen said. “To go from an F to a D—even though they made a little bit of progress— really isn’t saying much.”

Moving On

Despite emotional pleas from parents, the school board of the 44,000-student Escambia County district voted 3-2 last month to shutter the school at the end of the academic year.

Dixon Elementary School’s woes were compounded by the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the Northeast. The attacks contributed to a fiscal crisis in Florida, a state that depends on tourism to bolster the sales- tax receipts that make up its main source of revenue.

As a result, the Escambia County district will receive $5.2 million less than expected from the state this school year, and the district has been advised to prepare for an overall shortfall of $11 million out of a $210 million budget, said Superintendent Jim Paul. The district has turned to school closures and consolidations to fill the budgetary gap while avoiding teacher layoffs.

“No matter how your heart may feel with regard to any one school, we had to go back and look at the operational efficiencies in the schools,” Mr. Paul said. “The fact of the matter is that Dixon is a very, very costly school.”

Dixon has posted some gains in student performance as measured by state tests: It went from seeing just 28 percent of its students score a 3 or better, out of a possible 5, on the state writing assessment in 1999 to having 94 percent score a 3 or better the next year.

Still, Ms. Ladner says it has been difficult to change the school’s reputation after the state designated it as one of Florida’s lowest performers.

Dixon and another Pensacola school, Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy, became the only two schools in the state to earn an F label for two consecutive years. Under Florida’s accountability program, students in schools graded F for two out of four years qualify to receive vouchers that can be used to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. (“Schools Hit by Vouchers Fight Back,” Sept. 15, 1999.)

While only 26 students who would otherwise have attended Dixon received vouchers—worth up to $3,400—in 1999, and the school’s academic gains meant no additional students have become eligible for vouchers, the school’s enrollment has taken a big hit in recent years. A total of 460 students attended Dixon in the 1998-99 school year, compared with 408 students in 1999-2000 and the current 340 students.

Ms. Ladner says she understands the district’s economic situation, but she’s concerned that the school’s closure will be a significant blow to its students, who will be divided among a handful of nearby schools. All but three students at Dixon qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, and many parents don’t have reliable transportation, making it hard for them to get to farther-flung schools.

Ms. Ladner says she is prepared to move on at the end of the school year, however, even as a group of parents and community activists rally to save Dixon by proposing to convert it into a charter school.

“It seems like we’ve done nothing but fight for four years, from one battle to another,” the principal said. “When you’re tired and weary, you tend to look at things differently. I think we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re closing.”

Nicole Brandon, the president of the PTA at Dixon, isn’t finished fighting yet. Ms. Brandon teamed up with other community members to submit an application to turn Dixon into a publicly funded but largely autonomous charter school. School board members will likely weigh the charter proposal in the coming weeks.

“Our main concern is keeping Dixon where it is,” said Ms. Brandon, who has a son and a daughter in the school, as well as two nieces. “Ninety percent of my parents don’t have cars. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the situation. They have a hard enough time getting to Dixon without transportation.”

District spokesman Ronnie Arnold said, however, that to convert an existing public school into a charter school, the state requires that 50 percent of the faculty agree to the plan. “They don’t have that,” Mr. Arnold said.

Other Schools Closing

Dixon Elementary isn’t the only school in the district slated to be closed or consolidated. When Mr. Paul took office in 1999, he examined the operating costs—excluding teachers’ salaries—in each of the district’s 58 schools. Because the cost of Dixon’s administrative and support staff remained the same even as its enrollment declined, the school ranks as the district’s 10th costliest.

Seven of the top eight schools on the list will also be either closed or consolidated by the end of this school year, including Pensacola Beach Elementary School, which is an “A” school according to the state system that ranks schools on an A-to-F scale as measured by test results.

Spencer Bibbs, which, like Dixon, is graded D on the state’s scale and also fell under the voucher program for a year, will be allowed to remain open—even though it ranks ahead of Dixon on the list of the district’s costly schools.

Dixon is slated for closure over Spencer Bibbs, Mr. Paul said, because Spencer Bibbs has received grants that allow it to provide all of its students with computers. In addition, Spencer Bibbs recently received a new 10- classroom addition and will soon get a new media center.

In other words, Mr. Paul said, Dixon is not targeted for closure because it was once graded F or because its students once received vouchers.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with [the closing],” Mr. Paul said of the voucher policy. “I’m a conservative Republican. Why in the world would I want to close a voucher school when leaving it open is merely going to confirm what the governor says, that vouchers do make a difference.”

The superintendent further argued that Dixon school officials should not be concerned that the students will no longer receive intensive instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics if they are dispersed to other schools.

“We have to be concerned with how well those students will learn, wherever they are,” Mr. Paul said. “Will they receive a good education wherever they go? Of course they will. I will see to it.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Board to Close Fla. ‘Voucher’ School


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