The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy revisited the debate about school choice last week by suggesting that Florida’s low-income students are doing better academically than their Virginia counterparts in some respects, perhaps because of a school choice program that some Virginia lawmakers want to replicate.

Taking another look at a hotly debated issue at the Virginia General Assembly this year, Chris Braunlich, who is vice president at the Jefferson Institute and a former Fairfax County School Board member, says opponents of school choice were wrong to argue that the Sunshine State is an educational slacker despite its school choice program.

Reviewing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results, Braunlich says only 36 percent of Florida’s low-income fourth graders tested “below basic” in reading skills, compared with 44 percent of Virginia’s low-income fourth-graders. He also notes that 25 percent of Florida’s low-income students achieved a ranking at or above reading proficiency, compared with 18 percent of Virginia’s.

“In short, not only do fewer lower-income Florida 4th graders lag behind, more of them are also performing at the highest levels,” Braunlich writes. As for math, one in four of Virginia’s low-income fourth-graders scores below basic proficiency, while in Florida, the number is only one in five.

Furthermore, although Virginia ranks 4th on Education Week’s Quality Counts list, Florida was right behind it at No. 5, Braunlich says.

Although other factors are probably at work in the comparative rankings, Braunlich’s opinion paper for the Fairfax County-based Jefferson Institute argues that Florida’s commitment to educational choice can be credited for much of the state’s success in helping low-income students. The paper suggests that Virginia should reconsider the voucher program and that its opponents — he cites Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) by name — unfairly characterized Florida’s academic achievements.

A call to Marsh for comment late Friday was not immediately returned.

As in years past, GOP lawmakers took the lead in this year’s session in pushing for a voucher-like school choice program in Virginia. The bill that made it the furthest — sponsored by Del. James P. Massie III (R-Henrico) — would have granted up to $25 million in new tax breaks to corporations that gave scholarships for poor children to attend private school.

Several educational organizations oppose such programs, however, saying they would drain money from public schools that are already poorly funded. Among those lined up against such measures are the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia PTA, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and the Virginia School Boards Association.

Massie’s bill passed the GOP-led House 54 to 45 but it died in a Senate committee.

“We’re definitely coming back next year with the bill,” Massie said Friday, saying the Jefferson Institute’s opinion paper further bolsters the argument for his proposal. “The more data we get on these programs that are already in place ... just confirms how valuable the public policy is.”