| September 1, 2010

What Oklahoma Can Learn from Florida's Education Success

As Florida’s recent education reforms are being praised and implemented by other states hoping to mirror Florida’s strong academic gains, it’s time for Oklahoma to take a page from the Florida playbook.

Since 1998, Florida’s and Oklahoma’s academic results have taken divergent paths, as proved by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth-grade reading exam. Strong performance on this test is important, say researchers, because in students’ early years they are learning to read; in their later years students are reading to learn. Therefore, if students can’t read, chances are they won’t be learning much.

In 1998, Oklahoma students outscored Florida students, on average, by more than a grade level on NAEP’s fourth-grade reading exam. In 2009, Florida students captured the lead and scored almost a grade level ahead of Oklahoma students.

In 1998, all Oklahoma students, on average, performed about two grade levels ahead of Florida’s Hispanic students on NAEP’s fourth-grade reading test. Ten years later, Florida’s Hispanic students are nearly a grade level ahead of the average for all students in Oklahoma. Indeed, Florida’s Hispanic students now outscore the average of all students in 30 other states.

What’s Florida’s secret? In 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida’s legislature undertook bold, aggressive education reforms. Reforms included strengthening curriculum standards, providing school choice to parents, expanding virtual schooling, grading schools with clear A-F labels, allowing alternative teacher certification, and ending social promotion for illiterate third graders.

Results of these reforms have positioned Florida as a national model for how to transform publicly funded education of children. Tests are demonstrating Florida’s educational gains at all grade levels. Disadvantaged kids and those with special needs have especially benefited.

Oklahoma could be on its way in moving toward Florida’s educational reforms and progress.

In 2009, Oklahoma expanded its potential pool of quality teachers by enacting alternative teacher certification. Also, in 2010, Oklahoma legislators made improvements to its charter school law and also enacted the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act, which allows parents of children with special needs the opportunity to find better educational options at equal or lower costs to taxpayers.

Despite these and other positive developments, Oklahoma has a ways to go in enacting the reforms needed to catch up with Florida’s academic gains. Oklahoma’s testing, curriculum standards, school choice, virtual schooling, and accountability measures for schools lag behind Florida’s. Also, Oklahoma does not have Florida’s strategic approach to ensuring students are reading by the fourth grade.

Oklahoma cannot achieve global competitiveness through minor tweaks of a largely underperforming system. When it comes to education reform, fortune favors the bold. A brighter future awaits Oklahoma’s students if Oklahoma’s adults will take strong action.

Matthew Ladner is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice and vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute.

Bill Price is an OCPA trustee and chairman of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition.

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