FCAT helping 'rich' schools get richer
A study finds reward money tends to go to more affluent areas
July 21, 2003
By CHRIS DAVIS and MATTHEW DOIG
Laura C. Saunders Elementary could use a few thousand extra dollars from the
Florida School Recognition Program.
Principal Georgina Palomo said she'd use the money to hire tutors for her
migrant children, many of whom barely speak English.
Or maybe she would spring for staff bonuses to help bolster teachers tired of
being labeled failures despite heroic efforts to improve one of the poorest
schools in the state.
But the Homestead school, where more than 99 percent of the students are poor
enough to get subsidized school meals, won't get any reward money when it is
handed out this fall.
Instead, most of the recognition money will find its way to schools that
arguably need it least -- those in affluent neighborhoods where students are
more likely to get high scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
That's the reality of the Florida School Recognition Program, a prized aspect of
Gov. Jeb Bush's education plan that showers schools with cash when they score
well on the FCAT.
Under the five-year-old program, schools with wealthy, mostly white students are
virtually assured tens of thousands of dollars in reward money each year. The
odds are just as likely that poor students, like the ones at Saunders
Elementary, will miss out on the reward, also known as A-plus money.
A Herald-Tribune analysis of the recognition program shows that rich schools are
more likely to earn an A under the state's school grading program, which hinges
largely on FCAT performance. The analysis also showed that richer schools are
more likely to improve a letter grade.
Schools get Recognition Program money, $100 per student, for earning an A or for
improving by at least one letter grade.
When the state gives out this year's reward money in the fall, the richest half
of the state's schools will have gotten 67 percent of the $425 million given out
since the program started in 1999.
The Herald-Tribune used free and reduced lunch figures provided by the state to
classify the state's schools as rich or poor. Students who qualify for free or
reduced-price lunch come from families that the federal government deems
poor enough to need the assistance.
The recognition program has helped "rich" schools get richer. Over the life of
the program, schools that serve mostly affluent neighborhoods have received more
than double what poor schools have received.
Those schools have been given the money to reward
teachers for hard work or to update computer labs. Hundreds of schools around
the state have been able to hire additional teachers, send educators to training
seminars or launch
after-school programs for struggling students.
"Basically what it is, is the rich are getting richer," said Michael Rio,
principal at Palmetto Elementary in Manatee County. "They already have an
incredible amount of resources available from internal sources, like
Then they also get A-plus money."
Walter Tschinkel, a Florida State University professor who has examined the
state's grading system and has criticized the program, said the grading method
does little more than reward demographics.
"It (the FCAT) doesn't measure school performance, it measures the makeup of
the student body, the starting material," he said. "I don't think anyone ever
did the math. They never tested to see if it was fair."
There are other problems as well. Because the state gives rewards to schools
that improve a letter grade, schools that maintain a relatively high grade can
lose out on the cash. Meanwhile, schools that bounce back and forth -- from D to
C and back again, for example -- earn tens of thousands in reward money.
Palmetto Elementary, where more than half the students qualify for subsidized
lunch, has never received recognition money, although it has maintained a B
every year since the program started.
At least 345 schools that have never been graded higher than a C will have
collected almost $40 million after reward money is distributed this fall. Those
schools have earned an average of $115,000 each by bouncing between C's, D's and
"I don't think the general public has a real understanding of how inequitable
the system is," Rio said. "It's frustrating as can be for me."
Closing an achievement gap?
Frances Marine, a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman who said she was
also speaking on behalf of the governor's office, said the recognition program
has given schools "something to shoot for."
"We believe the program is a successful one," she said. "More children are
reading on grade level now than ever before."
Marine said there has been an 18 percent improvement in reading scores among
black fourth-graders since 1998, and a 10 percent increase for Hispanics.
"Minorities are improving at a much faster rate than the general population,"
Marine said. "We're closing the achievement gap."
However, the reward gap persists. About 67 percent of the recognition money has
gone to schools where less than half the students receive free or discounted
Some of that disparity exists because there are more students in the "rich"
schools than in the "poor." But even after dividing the student population into
equal halves, the poor category has received only 43 percent of the
Whichever method is used to divide schools into rich and poor categories,
schools in the rich group have pulled in about $50 more per student than those
in the poor group.
"The bottom line is, the program is blind to economic background," Marine said.
Gov. Bush and other supporters of the program say it is doing exactly what it
was designed to do by dangling a carrot for schools to reach for. For the reward
system to work, there have to be schools that don't get the money, otherwise
there is no motivation to do better.
Critics of the program complain that if it doesn't address the fact that
students from impoverished communities tend to struggle more on standardized
tests, then reward money will continue to flow to the state's wealthier schools.
The FCAT recently came under even more intense scrutiny from the state's
minority community because 56,000 third-graders and high school seniors may be
held back because of poor scores on the most recent FCAT. Most of those students
are black or Hispanic.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at the urging of
state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, has threatened to organize a boycott of
Florida's sugar, tourism and citrus industries if changes in the FCAT program
Wilson said the recognition program, which has grown to $120 million a year, is
a waste of money if wealthy schools benefit most.
"It should be the opposite," Wilson said. "It's like a doctor who goes into a
community and gives chemotherapy to the people who don't have cancer."
Beating the odds
Every year the students and staff at Inwood Elementary in Polk County shrug off
the "poverty" label and earn their school an A from the state.
It surprised people at first. Few expected a school where nearly 80 percent of
the students are considered poor to consistently earn the top grade.
Inwood did it four straight years until it dropped to a B this year.
"People just have this idea that if you are poor then you're not as smart as
everybody else," Inwood Principal Sue Buckner said. "You do what you have to do
to get it done. If it means staying after school and tutoring kids, you do it."
Every year, the FCAT has success stories like Inwood.
Four schools that got failing state grades in 1999 worked their way up to A's
this year. About 100 schools where more than 75 percent of students receive free
and reduced-price lunch have scored an A at least once.
An A grade means the school will earn a reward from the state. But schools that
improve a letter grade also get the money -- an effort to make sure all schools,
not just the highest performing, have a chance to be rewarded.
But the way the program has operated, poor schools haven't kept up with the
state's richer schools. They are more likely to get low grades, and their grades
are less likely to improve.
The gap in funding increases as schools get poorer.
Since the program started, the 100 schools with the highest percentage of poor
students have gotten less than half per pupil what the richest 100 schools have
The greatest gap came in 1999, when the poorest schools got 60 cents per student
and the richest got $33.
The School Recognition Program has operated like a rigged lottery with the
chances of winning stacked in the favor of rich schools:
Schools with less than 20 percent of their students getting subsidized lunch had
a 55 percent chance of getting an A. They had a 65 percent chance of improving
a letter grade.
Schools with 80 percent or more on subsidized lunch had a 6 percent chance of
getting an A and a 37 percent chance of improving.
Poor schools that do earn the recognition money often get it every other year
as they seesaw back and forth between grades.
Manatee County's Wakeland Elementary School earned $53,000 in 1999 when it
jumped from a D to an A. A group of U.S. lawmakers visited the school soon after
that to recognize its grade, which was earned even though more than 80
percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunch.
But the following year, the school plummeted back to a D. The school dropped to
an F in 2002 and then improved to a C this year. The school should get another
$50,000 this fall, but like last time, there's no guarantee the money will
ensure high performance.
"Children who are struggling academically need continued, intensive academic and
social support in order to succeed," said Dorene Ross, a University of Florida
professor of elementary education. "It can't be you get it one year, you
don't get it another year."
Schools with large numbers of impoverished children are guaranteed annual
assistance, largely in the form of federal Title I dollars, which can reach
about $970 per student.
In addition, the state has a program to provide teacher training and other
assistance to the lowest performing schools in the state.
But critics of the School Recognition Program say that's beside the point.
Money and assistance from other programs don't erase inequities in the rewards
plan, which has granted only 33 percent of the award money to the poorest half
of Florida's schools.
Palomo, the principal at Laura C. Saunders Elementary, argues that the entire
premise of the School Recognition Program is wrong.
Schools that consistently make A's are supposed to be making A's, because, for
the most part, their students come from affluent, well-educated families, she
Educators dealing with the poorest students in the state complain that the money
that gets sent to rich schools could be better used in those where students
don't start out with all the keys to academic success.
Students in the state's poorest schools may start school having never seen a
book. Many parents don't have the time or wherewithal to help kids with
"A lot of them don't have parents raising them, because of either drugs or
divorce. These kids are basically raising themselves," said Ross Pivnik, a
former Saunders Elementary teacher who said he quit the profession because the
forced teachers at low-income schools to spend all their time teaching students
to pass the test.
Palomo said she longs for extra money to support activities that would get
parents more involved in their children's education or to buy kids books to take
home and practice reading.
Some principals at poor schools would like to see measures put in place to
increase their chances of getting good grades. Others say any rewards system
based on standardized tests or other academic measures will inherently favor
Sen. Wilson told the Herald-Tribune in April that she wanted to scrap the
recognition program and spend the money on "intensive care reading labs."
Instead, the bulk of the recognition money has gone to teacher salary bonuses --
and the majority of that to rich schools.
"Here are teachers at higher economic schools getting bonuses, and the job is
easier," complains Rio, principal at Palmetto Elementary.
What's worse is that many schools that received the recognition money squandered
some of it on pizza parties and other splurges to reward students, Wilson said.
A Herald-Tribune investigation that concluded in April found that schools had
spent millions of dollars on lawn mowers, amusement park outings and other
noneducational purchases that violate state statute.
"So many schools don't even have enough textbooks, and it's so hard for their
students to catch up," Wilson said. "Some schools have everything they already
need, and that's why they can have pizza parties.
"But you don't learn how to read with pizza."