Julio Fuentes: Parental choice critics overlook need, demand, results

Editor’s note: This post originally ran yesterday on VOXXI, the fourth in a series of back-and-forth op-eds between Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg and Julio Fuentes, president & CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and a member of the board of directors for Step Up For Students. Step Up administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Dr.. Feinberg actually tries to draw a parallel between private schools that accept tax credit scholarship students and cancer-causing cigarettes.
Dr.. Feinberg actually tries to draw a parallel between private schools that accept tax credit scholarship students and cancer-causing cigarettes.

When her son Valentin was in sixth grade, Janet Ruiz decided enough was enough. Because of language barriers, Valentin, who is from Nicaragua, wasn’t doing well in public school. In fact, he was failing. He was also being bullied mercilessly because he didn’t speak English well enough. At one point, Ms. Ruiz kept him home for two weeks, but no one from the school even called.

So Ms. Ruiz got a tax credit scholarship that allowed Valentin to go to a different school, a dynamic little private school called La Progresiva Presbyterian in Miami. Now he’s in ninth grade and he reads and speaks English perfectly. In a school that prides itself on tough grading, he’s making straight A’s.

La Progresiva, his mom says, “is where he began to learn.”

It’s true that tax credit scholarships for low-income children, what the critics call “vouchers,” are not a panacea and don’t work for every child. It’s true there are fair questions to ask about them. But all too often, critics of parental choice seem eager to overlook thousands of stories like this one and instead perpetuate myths and make sensational claims.

In the process, they insult parents like Ms. Ruiz who are desperately looking for help, and an army of motivated educators, like those at La Progresiva, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution.

In Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg’s latest essay in VOXXI, she rehashes many of the arguments from her first essay and then makes an absurd comparison, trying to draw a parallel between private schools and cigarettes.

The number of smokers dropped dramatically, she notes, once cigarette packs started carrying warning labels. “Consumer satisfaction is not enough. What you don’t know can hurt you,” she writes. “And there’s a lot we don’t know about the effects of Florida law on ELLs and others in vouchers schools.”

Comparing private schools to cancer-causing cigarettes? I thought I had heard it all.

There are more than 36,000 educators in Florida private schools, and the vast majority of them are like the vast majority of public school teachers. They’re working as hard as they can, often in tough circumstances, and for not enough money, to make our world a better place. As a private school principal in Broward wrote recently in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “Like public school teachers, we’re not about profits and privatization. And with them, we share a common goal: to help our students become successful in school and in life.”

Those educators deserve respect and fair consideration. So do the parents of the kids they’re educating.

Growing numbers of them are lining up for tax credit scholarships because they see their kids on the verge of falling through the cracks and they don’t know where else to turn. Last year, 94,000 low-income parents started applications for about 60,000 available scholarships before the application process was ended months early, at the end of June. This fall, about 68,000 scholarships will be available. But more than 92,000 have already started applications, and it’s not even the end of April.

Education statistics show why many ELL and ESOL students, students like Valentin, are among those wanting more options. In my first response to Dr. Feinberg, I mentioned that only 11 percent of ELL students passed the 10th grade FCAT in reading, far lower than any other group.

Here’s another sad statistic, one that just came out this week from the U.S. Department of Education: Only 57 percent of students with limited English proficiency in Florida are graduating from high school, compared to 75 percent of all students. Fifty-seven percent. It is hard to fathom the amount of wasted potential. It is hard to get my head around the challenges that those students will face as adults, and the challenges we will all face supporting them.

Dr. Feinberg wants more truth in advertising, but she seems unwilling to accept that ELL parents have to face these kinds of distressing statistics. Parents whose children are on the wrong side of them shouldn’t be confined to a school just because Dr. Feinberg, or anybody else, thinks they’ll get a better deal there. Parents know if their kids are learning or not.

As I wrote in my first response, there is a debate to be had about which state-approved tests scholarship students must take and what results must be reported. But since Dr. Feinberg brought it up again, let’s please end this myth that we don’t have useful data that can give the public, and parents, a good idea of how participating private schools are doing.

State law requires not only that every scholarship student take a state-approved standardized test, and that the results be analyzed by a state-hired, high-quality education researcher, but that the average gains or losses for all schools with 30 or more test-taking students be publicly posted. Anybody can see them now. Just go to the Florida Department of Education website.

But Dr. Feinberg knows this already. In fact, she pointed to the very same set of data to try and make a case that participating private schools are failing to educate ELL students. Unfortunately, she cherry-picked and distorted what the education researcher who analyzed the data actually wrote.

Here is what Dr. Feinberg wrote:

“Those who leave voucher schools to return to public schools perform worse on the FCAT than did other subsidized-meals recipients who never participated in the program. According to Dr. David Figlio’s evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, ‘The most careful reading of this evidence indicates that participation in the FTC program appears to have neither advantaged nor disadvantaged the program participants who ultimately return to the public sector.’ “

But here is what Dr. Feinberg left out:

Dr. Figlio saw nothing remarkable about the performance of the returning students. He didn’t think the participating private schools were the cause. And he noted that the same kind of drop-off happens when really low-performing public school students switch to other public schools. He wrote: “These pieces of evidence strongly point to an explanation that the poor apparent FCAT performance of FTC program returnees is actually a result of the fact that the returning students are generally particularly struggling students.”

Dr. Feinberg also left out the report’s ultimate conclusion. In summing up Dr. Figlio’s findings, it noted his research that showed the public schools most affected by the loss of students to tax credit scholarships experienced academic gains themselves. Dr. Figlio wrote:

“There exists compelling causal evidence indicated that the FTC Scholarship Program has led to modest and statistically significant improvements in public school performance across the state. Therefore, a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”

Dr. Feinberg may want to declare educational war, but this is not about public schools versus private schools. This is about trying to find every available means to tackle a problem so big it is undermining our society and our future.

Low-income students are the majority in our schools now. They, and particularly the ELL and ESOL students among them, need all the help they can get, from wherever they can get it. I applaud the enormous and often thankless efforts that public schools are making to give these kids a shot. It is a fact that many of those kids are succeeding in public schools. But it is also a fact that too many of them are not. I am not going to back down from a program that simply gives parents a chance to try something else, somewhere else.

Let me end with a little bit more about Valentin. He’s planning to go to college. He wants to become a doctor. His teachers say he actually gets upset when he makes a B. When they ask him why, Valentin says it’s because he got a scholarship – and he intends to live up to it.

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BY Special to NextSteps