January 24, 2009

January 24, 2009 | Commentary on Education, Higher Education

Florida's Success Story

For more than 40 years, politicians in Washington have been promising that they will improve public education. But decades of growth in federal expenditures and ever-increasing federal involvement have failed to deliver meaningful results. Millions of children continue to pass through the nation's public schools without receiving a quality education.

Fresh off a historic presidential campaign, our country has a rare opportunity to turn the page on yesterday's failed policies. Fortunately, we can thank Florida for providing a blueprint for how best to move forward.

Perhaps no other issue affects our community more than education, with Hispanic children making up a considerable percentage of the students enrolled in the nation's public schools. This is particularly true in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where Hispanic students disproportionately outnumber non-Hispanics.

There's bad news, though. A recent study by America's Promise Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pegged the graduation rate for New York City Public Schools in 2003-2004 at a paltry 45.2 percent. This means that one out of two students is dropping out. Studies show that Hispanic children are even more likely to drop out of high school than their peers.

Failing in high school limits a young person's opportunities. Not earning a high-school diploma closes the door to countless opportunities for success and prosperity. In an increasingly competitive workforce, a high-school diploma is essential to get ahead.

For policymakers, the approach during the last few decades has been to pour more federal money into the public-school system in the hope that test scores will improve. This approach is exactly the one President George W. Bush's used in the landmark "No Child Left Behind" law.

Unfortunately, while the new Congress and president-elect are likely to offer a number of reforms and tweaks to the existing bill, they'll probably keep the formula about the same, essentially accepting the status quo. Given the bleak situation in our public schools, such a decision would be a real missed opportunity.

The time has come for a new approach. And Florida is showing that state reforms can deliver meaningful improvement, especially for Hispanic students.

Since 1999, thanks largely to the leadership of former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida has implemented a series of aggressive reforms to improve public education. The results are impressive. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Florida's students have made dramatic progress -- improving well ahead of the national average. Importantly, the biggest gains have been made by Florida's Hispanic students.

In fourth-grade reading, Florida's Hispanic students are now outperforming the statewide average of all students in 15 other states, including California and Tennessee.

How did Florida do it?

The state has held public schools and students accountable for results through quality testing. The state ended social promoting, requiring youngsters to pass the state's reading test in third grade before they could move to the next grade. It implemented merit pay for teachers -- providing bonuses to schools and teachers that succeeded in boosting students' learning. Most importantly, Florida has gone further than any state in giving families the power to choose the best public or private school for their children.

Congress, the president-elect and the incoming Secretary of education have a real opportunity in the next few months to change the way our country confronts the current education crisis.

Instead of repeating the failed policies of the last few decades, federal policymakers can shift control from Washington, D.C. to the states, and implement reforms to enable the same kind of state-level reforms that have proven effective in Florida.

States with growing Hispanic populations (such as North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Colorado) should look to Florida as an example of what has truly worked. Our community must become more engaged on this issue and hold our elected officials accountable for the sorry state of our country's education

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation and has more than half a decade working in Congress and Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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Related Issues: Education, Higher Education

First appeared in El Nuevo Herald