Comparing Florida and Utah Education Needs Caution

Bottom line: Look to Florida for positive examples of improvement, but do not be misled by some of the claims that ignore other important facts or have weak causal reasoning.

Kim Burningham represents District 5 on the Utah State Board of Education. Prior to joining the State Board of Education, he served for 15 years in the Utah Legislature and was an educator for many years, twice named Outstanding Teaching of the Year.

Author’s note: On this subject, I have done considerable research producing a 10-page comparison of the two states with all the documentation. If you would like a copy, simply email me, and I will be glad to ship it to you.

Utah State Board of Education Member Kim Burningham_"Comparing Florida and Utah Education Needs Caution"
Kim Burningham, Utah State Board of Education, District 5

During the last month, Florida Governor Jeb Bush appeared in Utah again. Reports indicate his message’s bottom line was the same he gave a year ago when he was brought to Salt Lake City: education challenges can be answered with the “Florida miracle.” I believe, however, some cautions about the Florida example need to be reiterated before anyone jumps to conclusions.

Some Floridians claim education success because the Florida fourth grade reading scores, according the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, have shown significant improvement: increasing from 205.7 in 1998 to 225.7 in 2009. They insist that reduction in the achievement gap for black and Hispanic students was also impressive. If true, that is indeed commendable. But wait—


1. Skeptics have reason to speak up! At the same time, Florida also started “holding back” third graders who were not making reading improvement. In fact, between 14 and 23 percent of third grade students (largely Hispanic and black) were kept in the third grade. One would expect fourth grade scores to make strides forward if you hold back all of those not reading well in the third grade! After an extra year of study, fourth graders should score better. The argument here is not about the score escalation as much as it is about whether social promotion should be halted. Now that would be a real discussion.


2. Another point: although the Florida reading scores did increase in the fourth grade, “the evidence on Florida’s NAEP achievement trends and gaps is mixed when other grade levels and subject areas are examined,” according to a 2010 report out of Columbia University. The 2009 NAEP results for Florida Math scores did not show a significant change. In science, the fourth-grade science scores again showed “no significant change” and in the eighth grade were “lower.” (NAEP, 2011)


3. Some observers claimed Florida’s practice of grading schools led to improvement. Following that logic, Utah also passed school grading legislation last year. But there is a major difference here. In Utah the action is primarily punitive simply labeling some schools with low grades. In Florida, a financial incentive accompanied the grading scheme. Schools that moved up a grade got $100 per student. This cost Florida $157.6 million in 2006 year alone. In Florida they gave rewards; in Utah we will simply shake our head in chagrin!


4. Adding to that, thoughtful analysts ought to remember that in Florida, a statewide constitutional amendment passed that limited class sizes beginning in 2003-04. Florida has appropriated $2.9 billion between 2003 and 2011 to reduce class sizes! Isn’t that a part of the “Florida miracle?” Now there is a change worth considering!


5. Besides all of this, funding differences demand attention. Both states (Utah and Florida) struggle with adequate funding, but it appears that Florida is doing a lot more about solving the problem. Utah did see some funding increase between 1999 and 2006 (before the economy went sour); our increase in funding in that time increased by about 25 percent. At the same time, funding for education as whole in Florida increased 69 percent for $7.7 billion. Money surely isn’t everything, but it is a very important something, and apparently Florida understands this better than we do.

Other issues could be considered. For instance, please note the graduation rate in the two states: Utah’s is 74.3 percent, while Florida’s is 66.9 percent. When comparing ACT scores, the Utah average score is higher than the Florida score and slightly rising. The Florida scores have declined.

Bottom line: Look to Florida for positive examples of improvement, but do not be misled by some of the claims that ignore other important facts or have weak causal reasoning.

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3 comments to Comparing Florida and Utah Education Needs Caution

  • Susan Malone


    I appreciate the research you have conducted. Please send me the full report .

    Thank you for your many years of service and commitment to public education.

    Sue Malone

  • Kim,

    Thank you for your recent post comparing Florida and Utah. I am a mother and education advocate in Florida and I can tell you first hand that the “Bold Reform Miracle” touted by Mr. Bush is a carefully crafted story that paints a very tiny picture. I am one of three founders of, a statewide grassroots education advocacy organization, that seeks to engage parents, teachers and others who care about public education. I want to be clear that we are not union or partisan. In fact the three founding partners are Republican, Democrat and Independent!

    Of course, we know that high-quality education is about more than money. However, Florida is notorious for passing legislation that has ZERO funding attached. Last session our “Teacher Merit” bill (SB 736), which passed, will take $2 B to start up, but there is no funding. When Fund Education Now began three years ago, Florida spent over $19B on Public Education. Now we spend less than $16B. Our per pupil funding has been rolled back to 1999. There isn’t enough gift wrap or cookie dough in the world to make up for this kind of defunding. Already in Florida we have PTA’s paying for classroom workbooks and other direct classroom costs.

    You are right to be skeptical. The worst part is what happens to those third graders who are retained and removed from the 4th grade testing process…they are labeled with a finality that has become a proven drop-out predictor. In addition, you are right to look at the ACT and SAT scores. Far too many of our High School graduates require extensive “remediation” to be successful in a 4-year college. More and more of our money is being spent on high-stakes tests and funneling taxpayer dollars into a separate, unequal and unfair caste system of public education. What’s happening in Florida is re-segregation…which I can talk further about if you’d like. None of this is good for kids.

    We are always searching for signs of sanity and I have to say that I was encouraged by your words.

    Kind regards,

    Kathleen Oropeza,co-founder

  • Barrie Giles


    Our principal shared your article with us in Community Council meeting this morning. Thank you for your insight. You state some very compelling data. I hope you can clarify something for me. As I read, I saw that (based on the statistics you cite) in spite of much higher spending and smaller class sizes than Utah, Florida did not have significant improvement for the money spent. In fact, you point out that Utah has a higher graduation rate and higher ACT scores. Then you go on to say, “Money surely isn’t everything, but it is a very important something, and apparently Florida understands better than we do.” So my question is this: If the statistics show that, for all the money spent, Florida has not had appreciable improvement in their educational outcomes, why do you conclude that they understand money? If Florida has expended many millions more in education funding than Utah and still has lower scores and graduation rates, is money really the root of the problem after all? It seems the clear conclusion is this case is that the problem is not readily solved with more money. I would appreciate the full report and any comments you may have about what seems like a contradiction in your reasoning.

    Thank you,

    Barrie Giles