President Obama’s missed opportunity on education

Israel Ortega Editor, Libertad.org
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In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, President Obama recently spoke at the Congressional Hispanic Institute’s 33rd annual gala, covering a broad range of issues in hopes of driving Hispanics to the polls for this fall’s midterm elections. With the elections only about a month away, it’s understandable that the president’s remarks read more like a campaign speech than a serious policy discussion.

Unfortunately, the president missed a perfect opportunity to talk about a national crisis that directly concerns Hispanics in our country: education.

According to a recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, nearly half of all Hispanic students enrolled in our public schools in some of our biggest cities won’t receive a high-school diploma. Of course, in today’s increasingly competitive workforce, lacking a diploma greatly diminishes the prospect of securing a steady, high-paying job.

Some might be tempted to dismiss this problem as primarily a concern for the Hispanic community and the interest groups that represent them. But that would be terribly misguided.

With Hispanics constituting our country’s biggest minority group, their academic failures are a national concern. USA Today recently reported that an estimated one in four kindergarten students this year is Hispanic. This staggering sum effectively challenges the notion that Hispanics are largely concentrated in just the southwest region of our country.

As such, it’s clear that we need to have an adult conversation about how best to close the racial achievement gap. It was only eight years ago that former President George W. Bush signed into law his landmark bill titled, “No Child Left Behind,” promising to address this embarrassing shortcoming. Unfortunately the latest NAEP scores, often called our nation’s “report card,” confirm the ugly truth: the federal government has failed to close the racial achievement gap despite an increased role and hundreds of billions of dollars.

Part of the reason for our failure to close the achievement gap is the failed notion that the federal government is best suited to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to public education. For the past few decades, politicians from both sides of the political aisle have convinced themselves that increased regulations, coupled with increased funding, will close the academic achievement gap.

The real solution lies elsewhere. According to a report co-authored by The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and the Goldwater Institute’s Matthew Ladner, Florida is making tremendous progress in narrowing the racial achievement gap — something that has eluded federal policymakers for decades. The entire report can be found here.

In this must-read report for every policymaker and Hispanic interest group, Burke and Ladner shine a spotlight on the reforms that have translated into actual achievement gains among minority students, including Hispanic students enrolled in Florida’s public schools.

Among the most notable measures: expanding choice by empowering parents to decide for themselves where to send their children for a quality education. Florida has made it easier for parents to compare between failing and successful public schools, encouraging a healthy dose of competition.

In addition, Florida is breaking ground with other innovative features, such as virtual education. More than 71,000 students in the state take courses online. The result? Hispanic students in Florida now outpace or tie the statewide reading average of all students in 31 states.

Our country’s failure to provide all students, of every color and creed, with a quality education is a national tragedy. It is high time that we take the keys from the federal government and hand it over to policymakers open to trying new measures, as Florida has done. The future of our country depends on it.

Let’s hope that next time the president has the opportunity to speak to a captive Hispanic audience, education features prominently in his remarks.

Israel Ortega is the Spanish Media Associate at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Ortega is a frequent contributor to a number of Spanish newspapers across the country. www.heritage.org.