Dr. Matthew Ladner

Is demography destiny?

If so, say some experts, states with growing Hispanic populations seem doomed to fail, weighed down with ineffective school systems and abysmal test scores. One academic goes so far as to predict the Southwest will become the “Appalachia of the 21st Century.” His logic was simple: Hispanic populations are growing rapidly, Hispanic students under-perform academically, southwestern states are doomed.


States can overcome this challenge. Exhibit A: Florida under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. Startling statistics show that with abundant school choice and systemic education reform, Florida’s Hispanic students already eclipse the average academic performance of many states.

Tackling education reform in Florida is a tougher nut to crack than in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Low-income students make up more than half the K-12 student body, with a “majority minority” ethnic mix. Florida’s per student funding is below the national average.

Governor Jeb Bush pushed through a bracing dual strategy of accountability from both the top down (high-stakes state testing) and bottom up (widespread parental choice) in 1999. Governor Bush’s A+ Plan emphasized standards for the schools and transparency for parents. Schools faced real consequences for prolonged failure, including school vouchers for their students.

Bush’s school choice strategy also included the creation of the nation’s largest voucher program--the McKay Scholarship Program--for students with disabilities and the “Step Up for Students” tax credit for economically disadvantaged children. Today, 820 Florida private schools educate 19,000 children with disabilities through McKay. A similar number of low-income parents exercise choice through the tax credit program. Florida also has a vigorous and growing charter school movement, with 375 charter schools educating over 106,000 students.

So what does Florida have to show for this tough mixture of testing and parental choice? The best source of data to answer this question comes from the federal government. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests representative samples of students in the states on a variety of subjects. NAEP provides the nation’s most reliable and respected source of K-12 testing data.

Children who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically, falling further and further behind with each passing grade. Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks and often become academically frustrated and disruptive. Hopelessly behind, these children begin dropping out of school in large numbers in the eighth grade.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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