Policy Tension in Florida Over Testing and School Choice

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 22, 2014 3 min read
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With the justifiable focus on assessments in recent education policy news, it’s worth asking how states’ policies regarding school choice and standardized assessments interact, and how they might change as many states shift to high-profile tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. An unfolding debate in Florida provides some interesting details.

Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Programwas founded in 2001, and during the 2012-13 school year it enrolled just over 51,000 students. However, unlike in Indiana and other states, students in Florida’s tax-credit scholarship system don’t have to take the same state standardized test (the FCAT, for now) as students in traditional public schools, as Josh Cunningham at the National Conference of State Legislatures has documented.

Although the program’s total scholarship awards more than doubled from 2008-09 to 2012-13, from $89 million to $207 million, state lawmakers are grappling this year with whether additional accountability measures should be placed on private schools that educate children utilizing the scholarships.

The latest move comes from state Sen. Bill Galvano, Republican, who’s introduced an amendment that tries to strike some sort of compromise. The House of Representatives has made it clear that simply requiring tax-credit scholarship students to take the state’s standardized assessment won’t fly. But Sen. President Don Gaetz, also a Republican, has made it clear that he wants additional accountability measures for students utilizing the scholarships. Galvano’s amendment to Senate Bill 1512 would require Florida State University’s Learning System Institute to measure scholarship students’ performance on “national” tests. It’s not clear what those tests would be, although the National Assessment of Educational Progress seems like one possible answer, along with perhaps the ACT, SAT, or AP tests.

UPDATE: Patrick Gibbons at Step Up for Students, a tax-credit scholarship organization in Florida, has pointed out to me that this isn’t really a new accountability requirement per se, since there’s already a requirement for schools educating tax-scholarship students to report standardized test results, such as results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Galvano’s amendment would switch who would analyze and report that data from Northwestern University to the Learning System Institute. I’ve also corrected the item below to note that Florida does require some kind of a standardized test for the tax-credit scholarship students, just not the FCAT.

Keep in mind, this is all taking place in the context of maneuvering among state lawmakers to expand the program in some way, including who’s eligible based on income levels. The pressure to expand the program is primarily coming from the House, while (as I indicated above) the pressure for more accountability is coming from the Senate side. Galvano’s amendment would also impose additional financial accountability on the nonprofit groups raising tax-credit scholarship funds. Also keep in mind that the legislature is controlled by Republicans.

Right now, 14 states have some form of tax-credit scholarship programs, according to Cunningham at the NCSL. From his research and additional information at the Friedman Foundation, I gathered that seven states (Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia) do require private schools to administer some kind of standardized assessment to students, whereas six (Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) do not. In Arizona, it depends on the type of scholarship. And I haven’t even touched on school voucher programs.

Will there be increasing friction between the desire in many states to see school choice programs expand, and a concurrent desire to measure more students’ progress on standardized tests? Those tests, including assessments aligned to common core, are only garnering more and more attention.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.