Today California ranks 48th in basic reading and math skills. A challenging student population is a popular scapegoat, especially Hispanic students.” By this “logic,” Hispanic populations are growing rapidly, Hispanic students under-perform, therefore southwestern states are doomed.
But states like Florida prove demography is not destiny.
“A decade ago, Florida schools were failing and ranked near the bottom in nearly every national survey. More than half of the state’s public school students were not reading or performing math at grade level,” explains former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. “Mediocrity was tolerated and excuses were more common than accountability. Back then, schools tracked library books better than students’ progress and poor performance in schools produced a round-robin of blame.”
Hispanics represent nearly half of all K–12 students in California and Florida. In both states low-income students also account for half of all K–12 enrollments. Yet Florida 4th graders, including Hispanic students, dramatically outperform the average California 4th grader – even though public schools here receive in excess of $2,300 more in state per-pupil funding. California median household income is also nearly $12,000 higher than Florida, and more of the adult population has a bachelor’s or advanced degree.
Children who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically. Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks and often become frustrated and disruptive. These children begin dropping out in large numbers in the eighth grade. Researchers, therefore, focus heavily on fourth grade reading scores as a bellwether of school effectiveness—an important indicator for California since around one out of four high-school students drop out.
In 1998, 47 percent of all Florida 4th graders were on this dropout track, scoring below basic on the NAEP reading test. In 2007, however, 70 percent of them scored at basic or above on this same assessment, compared to 47 percent of their 4th-grade California counterparts. Thus California students score the same as Florida students did nearly a decade ago.
It is largely taken for granted that poor children are destined to lag far below their more affluent peers. The reading performance of Florida’s low-income, inner-city 4th graders turns such conventional wisdom on its head by outperforming all California 4th graders. In fact, low-income, inner-city Florida 4th graders turned an 11-point NAEP reading deficit into a two-point advantage over all California 4th graders in just six years, from 1998 to 2005.
The average Florida Hispanic student’s 4th grade NAEP reading score—on a test conducted in English—is now higher than the overall scores of all 4th graders in 15 states, including California. This list is likely to grow in coming years: Hispanic 4th graders in Florida eligible for the free- and reduced-price lunch program also outscore all 4th graders in California and many of those states.
A decade ago, California and Florida chose radically different education reform paths. California ratcheted up its rate of school spending. Florida maintained steady annual increases while implementing a dual strategy of accountability from the top down, with rigorous state testing and the bottom up using parental choice. Beginning in 1999, Florida implemented a statewide tax credit and publicly funded scholarships so parents of children with disabilities and students trapped in failing schools could enroll their children in better schools.
Earlier this year, the Florida legislature approved a $30-million expansion of the tax-credit scholarship program with unanimous support from Florida’s Hispanic caucus, more than half the Black caucus, and one-third of the Democratic caucus. Such support is not surprising since about two-thirds of all scholarships are awarded to African-American and Hispanic students who would otherwise be trapped in failing or unsafe schools like their California counterparts.
Comparisons with states like Florida, where the disadvantaged score at high levels, make it difficult to excuse California’s dismal public school performance. There is growing recognition among California legislators that reforms devoid of parental choice will likely yield marginal improvement at best.
To improve the California schools, the Golden State should deploy accountability and parental choice. Legislators and parents should also consider a key reality. Not one doomsday scenario predicted by status-quo defenders has ever materialized in any state with parental choice programs.
Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is Vice President of Research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Education Studies Senior Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. Their report, Florida’s Education Reform Lessons for California, will be available on August 12, 2008, online at www.pacificresearch.org .