By Dan Lips
Here's a fact you probably won't see in your local newspaper: Half of all Hispanic children in public schools in this country can not read or write the English language. Will Congress and the American people wake up to this grim reality before Congress makes a big mistake in its new version of No Child Left Behind?
The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals the depth of the crisis in education for Hispanic children. It reports that 50 percent of Hispanic fourth grade students scored "below basic" in reading. Given that statistic, it is no surprise that only 59 percent of Hispanic girls and 48 percent of Hispanic boys end up graduating from high school.
Yet parents shouldn't look to Congress for an immediate solution. True, Congress is about to decide whether and how to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, which was originally intended to address the problem of low expectations facing many minority students. The law was designed to hold schools accountable for results through annual testing and by giving students trapped in low-performing schools the opportunity to transfer into higher performing schools.
But after five years, NCLB hasn't solved the problems in American education. Evidence suggests that federal high-stakes testing has led some states to change how their tests are graded, making it difficult for parents to understand whether their children are making progress. Some states have simply lowered standards to make their test easier to pass.
Early discussions on Capitol Hill suggest that NCLB will become worse, not better, if Congress moves forward with reauthorization. Some of the changes that are being considered would put Hispanic children further behind in the classroom. In particular, draft legislation released by Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) would change current testing policies to give states more leeway in how English language learners are tested. Specifically, the new proposal would reform existing law to allow states to use more subjective portfolio assessments and native language tests for five or more years to measure whether children are learning.
This change would force public schools across the country to make a tough decision: tackle the challenge of teaching Spanish-speaking children English so they can pass regular exams or take the easier path of using native-language tests and portfolio assessments. Because NCLB would continue to pressure schools with high-stakes state tests, federal law would provide an incentive for states to choose the easier path. The result: Fewer Hispanic children would learn the critical skills of reading, writing, and speaking English at an early age.
If Congress doesn't have the answer, what can be done to address the crisis facing Hispanic children in the classroom? Fortunately, there is a promising solution.
A growing number of states and communities are enacting school choice policies that let parents use their children's share of public education funding to choose the best school for their child. This gives parents the power to ensure that their children receive a quality education. If a child isn't thriving in his or her current classroom, parents can pick a new school where the child will receive a better education. Giving parents choices puts pressure on schools to succeed.
And giving parents more control in education is a popular idea. For example, a recent poll conducted by Harvard University researchers found that school choice reforms are popular among Hispanics. Sixty percent of Hispanics support providing school vouchers to disadvantaged students, and 54 percent support giving all children scholarships to transfer out of failing schools.
For far too long, parents have been waiting for government and politicians to fix our schools. Instead, government and politicians should give parents a chance by letting them choose the best school for their children.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst and Israel Ortega is Senior Media Associate at the Heritage Foundation.