More school choice can boost Florida’s success with Hispanic students

One of the big, untold stories in Florida education over the past decade has been the rising academic achievement of Hispanic students. As researcher Matt Ladner has pointed out, on the fourth grade NAEP reading test, Hispanic students in Florida now tie or outscore the statewide average for ALL students in a majority of states. Meanwhile, in high schools, Hispanic students – who made up 25 percent of all Florida graduates last year – made up more than 25 percent of all graduates who passed at least one Advanced Placement exam.

Why doesn’t this make a bigger splash in Florida, where some demographers say Hispanics could be the majority in a few decades? I’ll save my conspiracy theories for another day. The bottom line is, this trend is not only a hopeful sign for the state’s future, it’s more evidence that public schools here are rising to huge challenges.

Now, that being said, it’s also true that the overall numbers still aren’t where anybody wants them to be, and that some school districts are making bigger gains than others. Among those with flatter trend lines: the Pinellas and Hillsborough districts right here in Tampa Bay.

I bring this up because Pinellas and Hillsborough counties also happen to be the next stop for an innovative program aimed at improving Catholic schools, particularly for low-income Hispanic students.

In an effort that involves tax-credit scholarships, the Notre Dame ACE Academies will work with St. Joseph school in Tampa and Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park. I touched on this a little bit last week through a podcast interview with the program director, Christian Dallavis. But more context about the performance of Hispanic students in Tampa Bay is in order.

According to a recent Tampa Bay Times analysis of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores (full disclosure: I worked on that analysis when I was still a Times reporter), 54 percent of Hispanic students in Pinellas were reading at grade level in 2010. That put Pinellas at No. 10 among the 12 biggest districts in Florida, down from No. 6 in 2001. Meanwhile, in Hillsborough, 53 percent of Hispanic students met the bar, putting that district at No. 11, down from No. 5.

Now, I live in Pinellas, and I work in Hillsborough. I want both districts to live up to their potential. And again, to be clear and fair, both districts are making gains. I’m not going to bash them, and I’d be wary of anyone who did without taking a long, hard look at the data and the factors that may have led them to be outgained.

But at the same time, the trend lines help make the case for expanding parental choice. While Pinellas and Hillsborough work diligently to get more systemic traction, Hispanic families – if they choose to – can look to tax credit scholarships to get more traction for their kids, now. Programs like the Notre Dame ACE Academies should give them more assurance that private schools aren’t leaving quality to chance, either.

Florida schools should be proud of the rising success of Hispanic students. More parental choice will help fuel the momentum.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


Debbie Shaw

Your logic eludes me. If we are basing learning gains on the FCAT, and the Catholic school students are not required to take the FCAT, how do we know that this parental choice is working, or even has the potential, to work? Shouldn’t these students be required to take the FCAT so we can be assured that these tax scholarships are doing what they claim?

Hi Ms. Shaw. The scholarship students are not required to take the FCAT, but the ones in grades 3-10 are required to take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the Florida Department of Education. Those results can be statistically compared to FCAT results to get a good sense of how the scholarship students are doing compared to public school students. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s a useful one. Also, the state-hired researcher who does the comparison every year, David Figlio, is highly regarded. On a related note, the tax credit scholarship bill that passed the Legislature last week, and will be going before Gov. Rick Scott, would allow private schools who accept tax credit scholarships to voluntarily offer and administer the FCAT.

Debbie Shaw

Right. What private school would even consider it? They’d have to be crazy. If all were fair and equal, then the public schools would also give parents the choice for their kids to take this nationally norm-referenced test in lieu of FCAT. Or better yet– the ultimate choice for parents: Allow them to opt-out of the FCAT altogether. Now there’s something parents would endorse!!

Debbie Shaw

Is this what we want taught in schools that use vouchers? Is this how science and social studies should be taught? Really?

In 2008, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the professors who refused to accept credits from Christian schools that used ABeka and Bob Jones textbooks.
“U. S. District Court judge S. James Otero accepted the argument of two University of California professors that the text United States History for Christian Schools was inadequate because it claimed that the Bible was “the unerring source for analysis of historical events,” attributed “historical events to divine providence rather than analyzing human action,” and provided “inadequate treatment of several major ethnic groups, women and non-Christian religious groups.” The judge also ruled that the book did not “encourage critical thinking skills and failed to cover ‘major topics, themes and components’ of U.S. history.” The case went to appeal and the appeals judge affirmed the decision. (Association of Christian Schools International v. Roman Stears).


Its good to see more attention being placed on the academic needs of the rapidly growing Hispanic student population.

You accurately point out and there are several recent news pieces, some by your old employer, the Tampa Bay times, that show Pinellas and Hillsborough making gains with Hispanic students but still falling significantly behind other Florida school districts in Hispanic achievement.

Clearly, these two districts are playing catch-up and are struggling to formulate an approach that meaningfully addresses this challenge.

If nothing else, vouchers and Charters provide competition that may, or may not, spur public school districts to “step up their game.”

Absent the competition, the status quo prevails and children, parents and, ultimately, the tax payer and society as a whole are the losers.

Keep the feet of the public school districts to the fire, they grew “fat, happy and complacent” over the years and the current “wake up” call is not sitting well with the bureaucrats and private vendors that profit from ongoing failure without accountability.

Hi Joe,
Thanks for joining the conversation! I appreciate you reading our humble little blog. And I appreciate your views about choice and competition. I hope you keep reading and weighing in. Maybe pretty soon we’ll have enough folks weighing in to get a good, civil debate going …

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