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OPINION

Jeb Bush's Reforms Improved Public Schools

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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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.

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Balderdash.

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.

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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.

Researchers, therefore, focus heavily on fourth grade reading scores as a bellweather for the effectiveness of schools. In 1998, a stunning 47 percent of Florida fourth graders were on this dismal track, scoring “below basic” on the NAEP reading test. In 2007, 70 percent of Florida fourth graders scored basic or above on reading.

The percentage of Florida children failing to master basic literacy dropped by 36 percent in less than 10 years--a remarkable achievement. Meanwhile, the percentage of fourth graders scoring “proficient” increased by 54 percent, and the percent scoring “advanced” (the highest level of achievement) doubled, from four to eight percent.

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Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African American students helped to drive the overall results. Scores of Florida’s Hispanic students have soared in recent years. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second highest reading scores in the nation, and African Americans score fourth highest.

The average Florida Hispanic student NAEP reading score (conducted in English mind you) is now higher than the overall scores of all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Hold on to your hats, because this list is likely to grow in coming years. Florida’s free and reduced lunch eligible Hispanics outscore the average for all students in several of  the above states, including California.

In 2007, a family of four needed to earn $20,650 to be qualified for a free lunch, $38,203 for a reduced price lunch.[i] Nationwide, approximately 80 percent of free or reduced lunch children qualify for a free lunch. Median family income in California, by comparison, is $64,563.

Likewise, Florida’s African American scores have soared since 1998; from significantly below the national average for African Americans to significantly above. In 2007, Florida’s African American scores nearly tied the average score for all students in California.  

If Florida can maintain the current momentum, Florida’s African American students will have their own long list of states that they outperform. As it stands, they already score higher than the average for all students in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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Florida’s reform record provides hope to a nation struggling to improve education and to close racial achievement gaps. Given the proper incentives, public schools can improve. Disadvantaged children can learn at levels previously thought reserved for the privileged. It now falls to current Governor Charlie Crist, who served as Florida Education Commissioner during the Jeb Bush administration, to keep these gains going.

Demography need not become destiny, in the Southwest or elsewhere. Reform minded governors must realize that the education unions fought Jeb Bush every step of the way. The prize, an education reform legacy which is the envy of the nation, was well worth the fight.

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