Matthew Ladner | November 7, 2008

Demography Is Not Destiny

Matthew Ladner

Educators sometimes imply that we shouldn’t expect too much from low-income and minority students. Florida proves them wrong. Thanks to abundant school choice and systemic education reform, Hispanic 4th graders in Florida now have higher reading scores than the statewide average of all students in Oklahoma.

Is demography destiny in K-12 education?

Earlier this year, Oklahoma state school superintendent Sandy Garrett announced that “significant shifts in Oklahoma’s student demographics continue and we are clearly headed toward a majority-minority school population in the near future. Administrators and teachers are challenged by language barriers and poverty in meeting the needs of the changing student population.”

Some education experts are even more direct. They say that states with growing Hispanic populations seem doomed to fail, weighed down with ineffective school systems and abysmal test scores. One academic even goes so far as to predict that states with rapidly growing Hispanic populations will become the “Appalachia of the 21st Century.”

States can, however, overcome this challenge. Exhibit A: Florida.

Startling statistics show that with abundant school choice and systemic education reform, Hispanic 4th graders in Florida now have higher reading scores than the statewide average of all students in 15 states, including Oklahoma.

Education reform in Florida is a tougher nut to crack than it would be in, say, Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Low-income students make up more than half the K-12 student body, with a “majority-minority” ethnic mix. Moreover, Florida is below the national average on per-student funding.

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

Bush’s 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, more than 820 private schools educate almost 19,000 children with disabilities through McKay. A similar number of low-income parents exercise choice through the Step Up for Students program. Florida also has a vigorous and growing charter school program, with 379 charter schools (and counting) educating more than 106,000 students.

Florida reformers also put in a number of strong systemic reforms, including alternative teacher certification. In recent years, half of Florida’s new teachers have reached the classroom through alternative routes. Florida also reformed reading instruction, and created financial incentives to get students to pass Advanced Placement exams.

Reform Produces Results

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. The 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. Such students become academically frustrated and often disruptive. Hopelessly behind, such children begin dropping out of school in large numbers in the 8th grade. Some stay in school and graduate, but still can’t read. As Tulsa pastor Donald O’Neil Tyler said earlier this year: “I have kids in my church that graduate and can’t read. And you tell me this system is working?”

Therefore, researchers focus heavily on 4th grade reading scores. In 1998, a stunning 47 percent of Florida 4th graders were on just this dropout track, scoring “below basic” on the 4th grade NAEP reading test.

But in 2007, 70 percent of Florida’s 4th graders scored basic or above on 4th grade reading. The percentage of Florida children failing to master basic literacy dropped by 36 percent—a remarkable achievement.

Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African-American students helped drive the overall results. Florida’s Hispanic scores 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 when compared to their peers. Both groups have a great deal of momentum on their side.

The average Florida Hispanic NAEP reading scores (conducted in English, mind you) are now higher than the overall average scores for all students in Oklahoma. Indeed, Florida’s Hispanic students not only outscore the Oklahoma average, but also that of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Hold on to your hats, because this list is likely to grow in coming years. Florida’s Hispanic students are within a hair’s breadth of overtaking the overall national average.

Likewise, Florida’s African-American scores have soared since 1998, from significantly below the national average for African-Americans to significantly above. Florida’s African-American students have made so much progress in reading that their scores almost tied the overall average for all students in California in 2007.

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 average for all students in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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.

Demography need not become education destiny. Reformers around the country facing the daunting task of improving public education should consider the following question: If you were a low-income minority student, would you want to learn in a public school in Oklahoma, or one in Florida, given the relative success of schools in each state?


Oklahoma’s Lost Decade of Education Reform

The fact that disadvantaged students in Florida have overtaken the Oklahoma average owes not only to Florida’s remarkable progress, but also to a stagnation of scores in Oklahoma. Figure 1 shows the percentage of students scoring “Basic” or better on the 4th grade reading NAEP in 1998 and 2007.

Florida raced ahead during this decade, increasing the number of students demonstrating at least basic literacy skills by 32 percent. Oklahoma, meanwhile, watched its average scores decline.

Figure 2 presents average NAEP 4th grade reading scale scores for both states between 1992 and 2007. Notice the sharp improvement in Florida’s scores after the introduction of reform in 1999, and Oklahoma’s meandering decline in performance.

Figure 3 demonstrates the trends for all Oklahoma students and for Florida Hispanic students on 4th grade reading. In 1998 the average Oklahoma student scored far above the average Florida Hispanic student—219 to 198. One can hardly be surprised at this result: the NAEP reading test is administered in English without language accommodations.

Nevertheless, in 2005 Florida’s Hispanics overtook the statewide average for all students in Oklahoma. They maintained this slim lead again in 2007.

Figure 4 provides more of an “apples to apples” comparison: Hispanic scores in Florida compared to Hispanic scores in Oklahoma. Notice that Oklahoma Hispanics outscored Florida’s Hispanics in 1998. By 2007, however, Florida Hispanics far outshined their peers in Oklahoma, both due to their own substantial improvement and, to a lesser extent, declines in Oklahoma.

Some argue that policy efforts should be judged by how they impact the least advantaged among us. Figure 5 applies this standard by tracking the progress of low-income children—those whose family incomes qualify them for a free or reduced lunch under federal guidelines. In 2007, a family of four could earn no more than $28,650 to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Notice again that in 1998, Florida’s low-income students scored far below similar students in Oklahoma—208 in Oklahoma compared to 190 in Florida. While Oklahoma’s low-income students suffered flat scores, Florida’s students not only made up the gap, but took a lead.


Where Florida Has Led, Oklahoma Should Follow

OCPA economist Scott Moody, using U.S. Census Bureau data, has shown that in 2006 per-pupil spending in Oklahoma (including compensation and capital expenditures) was $8,136.

OCPA’s Brandon Dutcher and Steve Anderson showed that in 2003 per-pupil spending in Oklahoma (including compensation, capital expenditures, and other expenditures that would be included on a regular financial statement) was $11,250. OCPA has challenged a skeptical OEA to debate them on this figure, but the union wants no part of it.
In short, it doesn’t appear that money is the problem. Where Oklahoma lags behind Florida is in providing parental choice. Florida has 379 charter schools educating 99,818 students. Oklahoma has 15 charter schools educating 4,708 students. Florida has two of the largest private choice programs in the country in the McKay Scholarship Program and the Step Up for Students Tax Credit Program. Oklahoma has no private choice programs.

By comparison, the results of Oklahoma’s major reform push—providing taxpayer funded preschool to all four-year-old students in 1998—can only be described as disappointing. Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores have been flat since 1998. These disappointing results lead to the inevitable conclusion that reformers must focus on improving the quality of K-12 schooling, rather than simply adding grades to the existing system.

Florida students are improving academically at a higher rate than Oklahoma students. Importantly, children from minority populations are making the greatest improvements, demonstrating that Florida is making progress reducing the achievement gap. The aggressive education reforms implemented by Florida policymakers over the past decade appear to be having a positive effect.

Specifically, initial evidence suggests that ending social promotion, increasing school accountability, and expanding parental choice in education are contributing to improved academic achievement and public school performance. Policymakers across the country should study Florida’s model and implement similar systemic reforms.

More broadly, the Florida experience shows that the proper mix of education reforms can lead to levels of academic achievement for disadvantaged students that many have argued are impossible without massive increases in spending. Powerful interests, most notably the education unions, fought Governor Bush’s education reforms almost every step of the way. Yet Florida fashioned an enviable education legacy after 1998, one that proves that demography is not destiny.

There’s an old saying that the difference between a condition and a problem lies in whether or not you have given up. A problem is something you are still trying to solve. A condition is something that one has grown to accept as unalterable.

Florida’s improvement in academic achievement for minority and economically disadvantaged students proves once and for all that we’re dealing with a problem to be solved, not a condition to be accepted. Oklahoma should follow Florida’s lead in combining incentive- and instructional-based reforms, and in fact, take them further. Oklahoma’s disadvantaged children await these tragically overdue reforms.

Florida’s success should inspire replication, but in the end, Florida’s reforms should be viewed as a floor, not a ceiling. Florida’s reforms have greatly improved education in that state, but students there are still some ways off from achieving true international competitiveness when compared to our Asian and European competitors. It’s time to do more and push further.

To steal a line from "When Harry Met Sally", when it comes to education reform, I’ll have what Florida is having.

Matthew Ladner (Ph.D., University of Houston) is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute.

Matthew Ladner


Matthew Ladner (Ph.D., University of Houston) is the senior advisor of policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and numerous state legislative committees, and has authored many studies on school choice, charter schools, and special-education reform. He is the author of the 2010 report “Reforms with Results: What Oklahoma Can Learn from Florida’s K-12 Revolution,” which was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition, and OCPA.

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