Is demography destiny? Some educational experts say that it is. Therefore, states such as Arizona, with a growing Hispanic population, seem doomed to fail.
States can overcome this challenge. Exhibit A: Florida under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. Startling statistics show that with abundant school choice and systemic education reform, Florida's Hispanic students already eclipse the average academic performance of many states.
Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through a bracing dual strategy of accountability from both the top down (state testing) and bottom up (parental choice) in 1999. 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.
So what does Florida have to show for this mixture of tough testing and parental choice? The best source of data to answer this question comes from the federal government. The National Assessment of Education Progress 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.
Researchers focus heavily on fourth-grade reading skills. That's because children who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically, falling further and further behind with each passing grade.
Florida's fourth graders are making real progress. In 1998, a stunning 47 percent of Florida fourth graders were on a dropout track, scoring "below basic" on the fourth-grade NAEP reading test. In 2007, only 30 percent of Florida's fourth graders scored below basic on the same test.
Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and black students helped to drive the overall results. Florida's Hispanic students' scores have soared in recent years. The average Florida Hispanic fourth-grade NAEP reading score is now higher than the overall scores for all students of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Reading scores for Florida's black students have also soared, from significantly below the national average for blacks to significantly above. In 2007, Florida's black students' scores nearly tied the average overall score for all students in California.
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 destiny. There's a difference between a condition and a problem. A condition is something we've given up on and have grown to accept. A problem is something we aim to solve. Florida's stunning success shows that Arizona's demographic changes and their effects on education constitute a problem to solve, not a condition to accept.