School Choice Could Help Slow Latino Dropout Rate

Published February 1, 2008

Latino students are leading the pack when it comes to dropping out of high school, according to a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), and two leading researchers say school choice could help solve the problem.

Using statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Census Bureau, authors Madison Jones and Renee Bou-Waked found in their study, released in mid-November, that many public schools are not equipped to handle immigrant students’ special needs.

Inflated Rates

They also learned many non-native-born Latinos dropped out of schools in other countries and thus should not be included in the dropout statistics.

“What we found confirmed what we thought in terms of Hispanics having the highest dropout rate,” said Jones, an NCPA intern who is currently working on her doctoral degree in political science at the University of North Texas. “But we were surprised to see how inflated the dropout rates were because they included Hispanic immigrants who were not educated in the U.S. for part or all of their academic careers.

“Using data from the census, we evaluated the dropout rate for all the different races. But we realized that the census doesn’t ask about whether the person was educated in the U.S. or if they got their GED,” Jones continued. “That’s a problem, especially when you’re trying to determine why certain populations of students are dropping out.”

Language Barrier

With a dropout rate of more than 22 percent, Latino students are leaving high school at twice the rate of African-Americans and three times that of whites, according to NCES statistics cited in the study. The authors say part of the problem lies in the language barrier.

“Living in Dallas, we always hear about the problem of school districts struggling with the huge number of Hispanic students dropping out,” Jones explained. “We wanted to determine if there was a reason why they were more susceptible.

“I think we can safely assume that language barriers are a big factor,” Jones continued. “If you’re in a class but can’t read the homework or comprehend the teachers and students, then it’s hard to concentrate on learning the material.”

A closer look at NCES statistics revealed more than 36 percent of Hispanics born outside of the United States were high school dropouts. About 13 percent of first-generation Hispanics were dropouts, with the figure reaching just over 11 percent for second-generation Hispanics.

New Destinations

Some researchers, including Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Research Center in Washington, DC, say the Latino population is migrating to less-traditional settlement areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. With that geographic change comes a change in the type of Hispanic student the school system has to educate, he says.

“One major reason why the dropout rates in new settlement areas tend to be higher is because not all Latino youth are the same,” Fry explained. “Areas like Dallas, which have not traditionally educated Hispanic students, are dealing with youth that are more than likely to be born outside of the U.S.

“This is different than what places like Chicago or Houston have to encounter, because even though these places have experience in educating Hispanic youth, they were not typically born abroad,” Fry continued. “We know that foreign-born and U.S.-born Hispanic youth have different dropout rates, with the former having the highest.”

School Choice

Jones and Bou-Waked suggest school choice is one way to address the Hispanic high school dropout rate.

“That’s where charter schools come in,” Bou-Waked said in an interview for this story. “Schools that have English as a Second Language or Latino populations can cater to struggling students better than a school with a smaller Latin population. If parents are given the option to choose where to send their kids to school, they can pick a school that addresses their child’s particular needs.

“If they need a school that helps their child learn English, they can choose that,” Bou-Waked continued. “The best part is they don’t have to deal with the English language barrier in the process. This way, the student will be less likely to drop out of high school.”

Citing data from the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group based in Bethesda, Maryland, the authors noted Latino students are more likely to be proficient in math and reading if they attend a charter school.

A closer look at test schools in Texas revealed charter school students in grades six through nine did better on state reading and math tests than their public school counterparts.

But the new report isn’t about only school choice, Jones said–even those who oppose charter schools can benefit from the analysis.

“Even if you are against school choice, there’s value in finding that the statistics are a bit skewed when it comes to the Latino dropout rate,” Jones said.

“Some of the students that are counted were not educated in American schools. If we can determine who really makes up the Latino dropout population, maybe we can better learn to serve them in the education system,” Jones noted.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“School Choice and Hispanic Dropouts,” by Madison Jones and Renee Bou-Waked, National Center for Policy Analysis, November 12, 2007: