Noted researcher to study impact of public school choice program in Florida

Ron Matus

Like other school choice programs where supply is overwhelmed by demand, the school district in Pinellas County, Fla. offers an option that causes plenty of joy and heartache. Some kids win the “fundamental school” lottery. Some kids lose. Some go on to the high-performing fundamentals, where they’re surrounded by peers with super-engaged parents. Others go to neighborhood schools that struggle mightily.

Are their outcomes different? Matthew Chingos, a respected researcher at the Brookings Institution, is aiming to find out.

Last week, the district agreed to give Chingos the data he requested so he could examine the impact of fundamental schools on math and reading scores. Once he gets the data, he expects to issue findings within a year, according to his research application.

His study is worth watching because it involves a school choice option offered by a school district, not by private schools or charter schools.

The fundamental schools in Pinellas stress parental involvement and student accountability. Students who fall short on academic, behavioral and dress code requirements can be reassigned to neighborhood schools. Ditto if their parents fail to meet requirements, including attending monthly meetings.

The 104,000-student Pinellas district created its first fundamental school in 1976, but expanded them rapidly in recent years. It now has more than 7,000 students in 10 full-fledged fundamental schools and two “school-within-a-school” fundamental high schools.

The schools boast some of the district’s highest test scores and lowest disciplinary rates. They also cause a fair amount of angst.

Supporters have pushed the district to increase fundamental seats to meet demand. But critics fear the schools cull many of the highest performing students and most-engaged parents from dozens of neighborhood schools and concentrate them in a few. The free- and reduced-price lunch rates at fundamentals are far lower than the district rate, and often far, far lower than the rates at nearby zoned schools.

Chingos was at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance before joining Brookings. He co-authored a report released last month that found black students in a New York City voucher program went to college at significantly higher rates than black students who applied for a voucher but did not win the lottery to obtain one.

Full disclosure: My children attend a fundamental school in Pinellas. I told Chingos about the schools while I was a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.

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