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February 19, 2009

Hispanic Families Must Make Their Voices Heard in the Fight for D.C. School Choice

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
Hispanic Families Must Make Their Voices Heard in the Fight for D.C. School Choice

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By Lindsey Burke and Israel Ortega

Since 2004, many Hispanic children in D.C. have been given the opportunity of a lifetime: a scholarship to attend a private school. Five years after the program began, growing evidence is showing that it is making a huge impact in these children's lives. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether Congress and the Obama Administration will allow the successful program to go forward.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) provides students from low-income families with scholarships of up to $7,500 to attend a private school of their choice. Nearly 10 percent of families served by the DCOSP are Hispanic.

A recent study conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project measured the satisfaction of families participating in the program. Spanish-speaking families were highly satisfied. "The majority of Spanish-speaking parents stated their children are more motivated, focused on what they want, and striving for improved grades," the report concluded. "The Spanish-speaking parents were particularly pleased with the way the schools their children are attending provide incentives for good behavior and academic improvement."

That its future is in jeopardy should awaken supporters of the program--especially those in communities that have traditionally been poorly served by the public school system.

The D.C. public school system provides us with an example of just how dire the situation truly is, illustrated by the dismal test scores of district students. Less than half of all fourth-graders are learning to read at grade level, and dropout rates are alarmingly high. With more than 8,000 Hispanic students enrolled in D.C. public schools, these facts should worry the Spanish-speaking community at large.

Fortunately, the statistics do not have to be this dire. We can look to Florida as a shining example of how to turn around the education system in a state and make it work for all students. This has been the particular case with Hispanic students in Florida, who now outscore the statewide averages of all students in 15 states. Through reforms that included ending social promotion, enacting performance pay for teachers, and holding schools and students accountable for results, the Sunshine State is working to ensure that every student reaches his full potential. These reforms--coupled with robust public and private school choice options--have put Florida's Hispanic students on par with students across the country, a feat that many thought was nearly unattainable.

There should be no reason that Hispanic students in D.C. cannot achieve the same impressive results. Parents must be able to choose a school that best meets the needs of their children. The success achieved in Florida is certainly possible in D.C. and throughout the country. The DCOSP is a step in the right direction toward tackling this crisis head on.

As beneficiaries of the DCOSP, Hispanics must rally behind the program that is providing some of its children with the chance to achieve academic success. Every Hispanic child has the potential for a great future--as a scientist, lawyer, even President. The Hispanic community must make their voices heard to ensure that its youngest members can achieve the future they deserve.

Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies and Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

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