Shoddy statistics nearly doomed school choice in Florida

Patrick R. Gibbons

The dissent’s cursory review of faulty education data in Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Board of Education could have deprived many Florida families of educational choice.

Do vouchers and charter schools harm public schools, thereby violating the state’s constitutional duty to fund an adequate system of uniform public schools? Until last month’s 4-3 decision in Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Board of Education, the Florida Supreme Court had ignored the empirical question entirely. In Bush v. Holmes (2006), the court majority decided that a theoretical harm, real or not, was enough to declare the Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional.

The three dissenting justices in Citizens for Strong Schools, who all decided on Bush v. Holmes 13 years earlier, finally were forced to examine the evidence. Unfortunately, the dissent’s cursory review of education data focused on some bad statistics. One more vote and shoddy data could have spelled the end of educational options for more than 425,000 children in the Sunshine State.

The dissent prominently featured a USA Today article that ranked education by state.

The article was compiled from Education Week’s Quality Counts “overall” 2017 ranking. That ranking used multiple statistics: graduation rates, public school spending, eighth-grade proficiency in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), adults with a bachelor’s degree or above, and the percentage of adults in the state with incomes above the national median.

The ranking is severely flawed for several reasons:

  • It incorporates K-12 per pupil spending – an input – into its analysis of K-12 quality (which should be based on outputs). One cannot argue that school quality is poor because funding is low, if the cited statistic also uses funding as part of the definition of school quality. Otherwise, you’re just arguing that “school funding is low because school funding is low,” which is not an impressive line of reasoning.
  • Graduation rates do not tell us anything regarding school quality or efficiency because states can set low or high standards for graduation.
  • NAEP proficiency rates are important and useful in determining the relative quality of a school system. However, the ranking fails to adjust for poverty or race, which biases the results in favor of whiter and wealthier states.
  • The percentage of adults with college degrees and their incomes might tell us something about the quality of education in the distant past. But the results might also be skewed by recent immigration or cost of living differences. At the very least, degree and income stats favor whiter and wealthier states, and don’t really tell us much about K-12 quality now.

During the trial, lawyers for the Florida Department of Education argued that Florida’s K-12 outcomes were superior to that of New Jersey, a state that lost a funding adequacy lawsuit in 1985 and was forced by the court to greatly increase spending for students in high-poverty school districts.

The dissent pointed to the USA Today article and noted that New Jersey ranked No. 2 while Florida ranked No. 29. But as stated above, the overall USA Today/Education Week ranking biases in favor of wealthier and whiter states, like New Jersey.

Digging deeper into the data, we find that Florida has a larger minority population with black and Hispanic students making up 54 percent of the student body, compared to 42 percent in New Jersey. When comparing NAEP eighth-grade reading and math results, Florida tends to do just as well as New Jersey for black, Hispanic and low-income student populations.

The fact that New Jersey’s low-income districts spend nearly three times as much as Florida and achieve the same results on eighth-grade NAEP tests is telling. If New Jersey is high quality, as the dissent insists, then so, too, is Florida.

Contrary to the insistence of some critics, the court majority correctly rejected the power to determine “adequate” K-12 spending based on platitudes like “efficient” and “high-quality.” The majority also recognized the complexity of education statistics and rejected the argument that school choice makes Florida’s K-12 system perform poorly. In fact, the court recognized that these programs may have a positive effect on public schools.

Whether public schools should be better funded is another story entirely. It’s a debate we should continue to have, but you just can’t use bad statistics to throw Florida’s entire K-12 system, including school choice, under the bus to make your case anymore.

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