Matthew Ladner, Andrew T. LeFevre, and Dan Lips, Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform, 16th Edition, (Washington, DC: American Legislative Exchange Council, September 2010).
The sixteenth edition of the annual report card from ALEC, a free-market dedicated coalition of state legislators, spends most of its ink explaining the need for school reform in America. Almost overshadowed by this manifesto is the analysis that makes the report so interesting. The report conducts two kinds: First, it assesses a state’s ability to educate its low-income students (irrespective of race) by analyzing NAEP scores of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch (FRL); then, it grades each state on its overall education reform “friendliness,” through metrics like openness to school choice and alternative certification. (Coincidentally, we conducted a similar city-based assessment of reform-mindedness this summer.) The report’s authors choose the performance of FRL recipients because of the group’s inherent invariability, which maximizes state comparibility by minimizing vast economic differences among student populations from state to state. Despite this, however, it was troubling that half of the top ten states in this category had low-income populations that were mostly white. On reform-friendliness, the methods were a bit more complex. ALEC graded states on multiple measures, such as the rigor of state standards, available types of school choice, and the existence of alternative certification routes. On both counts, Florida was the big winner, ranking third in student performance and first in reform-mindedness—and being the only state in the top ten in both categories; an entire chapter of the report is dedicated to lessons from the state. (Incidentally, Jacksonville, FL, came in our city-based top five.) While the authors dismiss the racial achievement gap as a cultural phenomenon that strong schools can overcome, to praise Vermont and Kansas for educating their low-income white students well is to ignore that minority low-income students in other states may face greater hurdles. Florida, however, does both.