More Choices Can Help Low-Income Students Achieve Success

When I was considering running for Governor in 1998, Florida’s students were struggling. The year before I took office, Florida students scored near the bottom of the nation in student achievement. Nearly half of our fourth-graders were illiterate. So I visited 250 schools to see first-hand what wasn’t working.

The situation was particularly dire for Hispanic students. Their parents often didn’t have choices and didn’t know how to advocate for their kids. School officials were making excuses, blaming language, ethnicity and socio-economic status instead of taking accountability for what was happening in the classroom.

The failure was obvious: Only 47% of Hispanic students graduated from high school in 1999.

So I set out to change the culture of accepted failure. I placed education reform at the top of my priority list. I pressed for greater accountability, higher standards, rewards for great teachers and more school choices, especially for those kids from low-income backgrounds. I worked with community leaders, pastors, parents and anyone else who was willing to try a new approach.


Today, as I head to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference to speak about these issues, the results in Florida speak for themselves. In 2013, Florida Hispanic students outscored the statewide average for all students in 34 states on a major fourth grade national assessment. Florida’s Hispanic fourth graders rank first in the nation among their peers in reading and fourth in the nation in math — and outperformed their peers in other states by two grade levels.

In 2014, we completely closed the gap between white and Hispanic students taking and successfully passing an AP exam. We boosted the Hispanic high school graduation rate from 47% to 75% — one of the biggest such increases in the nation, and nearly 10 percentage points above the nationwide average.

From 1999 to 2013, the number of Hispanics in Florida colleges went from just under 33,000 to nearly 80,000. And we have nearly eliminated the graduation gap at the college level: In 2010–11, the number of Florida Hispanic students graduating college is almost equal to white students: 51% to 55%


These measurable achievements aren’t just about numbers. They’re about lives changed.

One Florida student, 10th grader Valentin Mendez has seen the results. He was struggling in school, being bullied, not able to learn. His mother found a school — La Progresiva Presbyterian — that he could qualify for using our Step Up for Students scholarship.

Here’s what his mom says today:

“Suddenly it was Valentin doing his homework…Valentin playing sports…Valentin doing everything.”
Valentin Mendez eats lunch with friends at La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami, Florida.

Each life transformed like Valentin’s is proof of the value of hard work by students, insistence on high standards by parents and teachers and a determination to give students more opportunities to do better and try new things.