Every family wants to be able to guarantee a strong education and a bright future for their children. Rhode Island, well-known for high levels of per-pupil school spending and a high rate of post-secondary education, would seem like a great place for families to secure the educations they want. Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s educational system only works for some.
If you’re Hispanic and live in the state, you probably never attend college, much less graduate. Nearly two of three Hispanics over the age of 25 have no college education—and only 12 percent will complete a bachelor’s degree program. White students are three times more likely to graduate college than their Hispanic peers.
What is life like for those left behind by the Ocean State’s current approach to education? Given the vast education-based wage gap (data shows that the median income for those with a bachelor’s degree is nearly double that of those without a college education), it is little surprise that Rhode Island’s Hispanic community is struggling with poverty. As Hispanic families fall behind academically, they fall behind financially.
Recent ground-breaking research from the Family Prosperity Initiative (FPI) demonstrates the inviolable connection between strong families with access to educational opportunities, and prosperity, as well as highlighting the critical importance of families in building a strong economy. This is especially true for families in Rhode Island — which, not surprisingly, ranks 48th on the Family Prosperity Index.
The median household income for Ocean State Hispanics is $25,000 lower than the statewide median income. Nearly three out of four Hispanic children are in low-income families. Poor educational outcomes lead to lower lifetime income, which, in turn, leads to poor educational outcomes — a vicious cycle that makes upward mobility and the American dream look more and more like a pipe dream for Hispanic families.
Imagine the desperation felt by families in Rhode Island’s minority communities: Unless you are well-educated yourself, you probably don’t make enough money to guarantee a quality education for your children. And so, the gap between haves and have-nots begins early, with a noticeable difference in educational achievement by the time children are nine years old.
What if Rhode Island’s government had the ability to — almost instantly — give families and students access to better educational outcomes? And what if the change was blocked by career politicians who are well-served by not fighting against the special interests who support the status quo?
That’s closer to the truth than most realize. The RI General Assembly’s recently approved educational budget includes union inspired budget cuts for charter schools — as reported by the Providence Journal. Charter schools are one of the few things conclusively shown to help close the educational gap. On standardized 8th grade mathematics exams, low-income Hispanic students in Rhode Island’s charter schools performed significantly better than average, while those in the public school system lag far behind. Why are we reducing funding to the one reform that might help Rhode Island’s disadvantaged students?
Rhode Island could learn a lot from Florida. In 1999, the Sunshine State implemented comprehensive educational reforms, including better charter school funding, school choice, and merit-based teacher pay. In the years since, these changes have resulted in minority students’ rapidly catching up with their peers. Florida’s low-income Hispanic students now perform well above national averages.
Rhode Island could begin to accomplish the same changes by implementing the Bright Today Educational Scholarships, a program promoted by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Minority communities that have the freedom to choose the education that best serves them have a hope that Rhode Island families currently do not — the hope that with better education will come better jobs, better wages, and a self-sufficient, confident future.
For too long, we’ve been promoting the same tired approaches to educational and economic policy and, in doing so, have been slowly placing the American dream out of the reach of our most vulnerable citizens. Rhode Island must do better.
Matthew H. Young is a visiting fellow at the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. His work may be found in First Things, Civitas Review, the Journal of Energy Security, and on Twitter @matthenryyoung.