Expanding parental school choice can help English language learners

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Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed Sunday on VOXXI, in response to an op-ed by Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg. Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and a member of the board of directors for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Julio Fuentes

Julio Fuentes

In Florida schools, there is no doubt that English language learners, many of them Spanish speakers, are the most vulnerable and most struggling of our students.

To offer but one sad fact, only 11 percent of ELL (English Language Learners) students last year passed the 10th grade FCAT in reading, the test they must pass in order to graduate from high school. Let me repeat that so the gravity of the number sinks in: 11 percent. That’s compared to 54 percent of students overall, 41 percent of low-income students and 21 percent of students with disabilities. To be sure, standardized test scores should often be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s clear they wave a bigger red flag with ELL students than with any other group. And there is no doubt we must move with greater urgency to do all we can to ensure a brighter future for those students.

Given that backdrop, I must respond to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg’s April 24 op-ed, “Students learning ESOL with vouchers might be getting shortchanged.” I have the utmost regard for Dr. Feinberg. I appreciate the expertise she brings to the subject of ELL and ESOL students. And I do think there are some issues involving those students and tax credit scholarships (aka “vouchers”) that are worthy of fair-minded debate. But in this case, I must respectfully say that Dr. Feinberg’s concerns are misplaced, and that she is unfairly tarnishing a tool that can help ELL students.

At the end of the day, what tax credit scholarships do is simply give parents more options. Why in the world would we limit options for students who need help wherever they can get it? Dr. Feinberg listed a slew of things that public schools are required to provide ELL students, including extra funding and extra training for teachers. Many of those policies are well-intentioned and helpful. But the statistics show they’re not helpful enough.

This year, 35 percent of the nearly 60,000 low-income students using tax credit scholarships are Hispanic. Many were not satisfied with public schools, and so they used the scholarships to find something that works better for their children. If the ELL families among them felt their needs were being met in public schools, they wouldn’t have left. There are endless reasons for their frustration, but I have no doubt that the cultural barriers they sometimes face in public schools are among them.

Sometimes Spanish-speaking parents can’t communicate well with the staffs at public schools. At some public schools, there is no one who can help the family because no one at the school speaks their language. I don’t mean this as a knock on public schools, which are too often burdened with the impossible task of being all things to all children. But it’s a fact. It’s also a fact that many private schools serving Spanish students go to great lengths to ensure that even their written communications are in Spanish. I wish I could say the same about public schools, but unfortunately I know more than a few examples where that is not the case.

Perhaps unintentionally, Dr. Feinberg made a case for school choice and parental empowerment in her own op-ed. She suggested to parents, “Visit the school’s ESOL or bilingual classes. Do you think the children are learning English? If the school doesn’t offer these classes, think twice about changing schools.”

We couldn’t agree more. But it’s not in the best interest of ELL students for the parents to limit their visits to public schools. Why not explore all options?

Now it’s no doubt true that many of the 1,425 private schools that participate in the tax credit scholarship program are not well equipped to help ELL students. Private schools come in all shapes, sizes and stripes. Some cater more to certain types of students than others, which, incidentally, is what public schools are increasingly doing, too.

But the fact that not all private schools are good for ELL students isn’t a good reason to block low-income parents from choosing those that are. Schools like La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami, for instance. La Progresiva is serving 378 tax credit scholarship students. And what parents get there is a highly trained, highly motivated staff that switches back and forth between English and Spanish in an authentic language immersion program.

Contrary to a widespread myth, tax credit scholarship students are required to take state-approved standardized tests, and the results are required to be analyzed every year. There is a fair debate to be had over what tests should be used, and what results should be reported. But six years of data tells us two very important things: The scholarship students are mostly the ones who were the furthest behind in public schools (which is why their parents sought out options). And now in their private schools, they are making the same gains as students of all income levels nationally.

Obviously, those results shake out differently school by school, and student by student. But the parents know if the school is working for their child. If it’s not, they find one that will. That’s not an option available to most parents in public schools, and we shouldn’t overlook the significance and power of that. In fact, we should applaud it.

I want to add just one last point. In her conclusion, Dr. Feinberg said she wouldn’t hesitate to “speak out about injustice in the state’s voucher program harming our community.” Those are strong words, and I know they spring from Dr. Feinberg’s passion for the power of education and her hope that all of our kids succeed. I share this passion and this hope.

But the real injustice is blocking options that may give students a better footing on the path to success. Our ELL kids need all hands on deck. The scholarships add a few more hands.

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