Providence (RI) Journal
Cavernous achievement gaps between Latino and white children persist, as an education system largely dominated by teacher unions and powerful entrenched interests denies parents opportunities to make crucial choices about their children’s education. If current trends hold, out of every 100 Latino kindergartners in the United States, only 11 will obtain a bachelor’s degree, as projected by the Education Trust.
Greater parental choice opportunities for Latino families in the United States would allow programs with proven track records:
• New advances in virtual education technology threaten to revolutionize online and hybrid classrooms, and the benefits for Latinos may be especially valuable. These new opportunities are driven by innovative software that provides teachers with continuous verification of content mastery, and allows them to specialize instruction to the needs of individual children.
• School voucher programs, like the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, offer Latino families access to better, safer schools and the opportunity to choose among specialized learning environments, and have demonstrated impressive results.
• High-performing charter schools have proven to be among the most effective tools to close minority achievement gaps. A 2009 analysis of Chicago education determined that Latino students attending charter schools outperformed their Chicago Public Schools peers 66 percent of the time. The differences were even more profound for Chicago’s English learners attending charters, who outscored their peers at traditional city schools 83.8 percent of the time.
• Specialized scholarships to allow the 8.5 percent of Latino families with children diagnosed with disabilities to transfer to nearby public or private schools – a solution shown to be exceedingly popular among families enrolled, while also saving taxpayer dollars.
Latino children remain twice as likely as white children to score in the woeful “below basic” category at both the fourth and eighth grade reading levels on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). For the two in five Latino eighth graders nationally scoring “below basic,” the test’s lowest category, the odds against earning a high school diploma are extremely steep.
Worse still, however, is that Latino proficiency levels essentially failed to improve between 2002 and 2009. This fact holds even more daunting implications considering the Pew Trusts’ projection that 29 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic in 2050.
Nationally, the higher the percentage of Latino students that attend a particular high school, the more likely they are to be taught by teachers who lack a college major in the subject they are teaching. The fact that school overcrowding often falls most heavily in Latino neighborhoods adds to the urgency of the need for new options. A benefit of parental choice is the ability to help overcome regional teacher shortages, which nationally are most likely to occur in predominantly Latino schools.
In Chicago and surrounding neighborhoods, for instance, 35 percent of 16-24 year-old Latino young adults are high school dropouts and choice options, while effective, are often unavailable. By contrast, reforms rooted in parental choice that were implemented in Florida, including virtual schooling, private school choices for low-income and special needs students, and a robust charter school market, have demonstrated a remarkable record of achievement over the past decade.
Based on 2009 NAEP scores, Florida’s Latino fourth graders now outscore or tie the statewide reading averages of 31 states. As noted by researchers Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips, Florida Latinos’ fourth grade reading scores were 25 points below the national average of white students in 1998, but by 2009 had closed the gap to just six points. Parental choice options were key policies that helped ignite this success in the Latino community and start to close the achievement gap in Florida.
Unfortunately, most of the nation’s largest Latino constituency and advocacy groups continue to use their considerable political clout in support of liberal political agendas seeking to bolster the public education monopoly and teacher union control of government education spending. Likewise, Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan has directed billions of new federal education dollars to initiatives seeking to replicate proven education successes, but has failed to recognize the benefits of private-school choice. New approaches that give parents greater control would offer strong promise for closing the achievement gap facing the nation’s large and growing Latino population.
Lori Drummer and Don Soifer are education analysts with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, VA, and are authors of a new report, Libertad de la Educación: School Choice Solutions for Closing the Latino Achevement Gap, at www.lexingtoninstitute.org.
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