Hispanic education in crisis
- 27 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
Hispanics make up the fastest growing segment of the American population, but are lagging when it comes to education. The consequences are huge not just for individual families, but the entire American economy.
President Barack Obama said last year that Hispanic school children faced "challenges of monumental proportions". He was articulating what many in the United States have been worrying about for years - that Latinos - from kindergarten to university - are falling far behind.
A White House report published in April states that less than 50% of Latino children are enrolled in pre-school; just 50% earn their high school diploma on time and, those who do are only half as likely as their peers to be prepared for college. Just 13% have a degree.
'Democracy in peril'
These percentages are troubling enough. What makes them truly alarming is the addition of another set of numbers - the demographics of Hispanic America. For they are the youngest and fastest growing group in the country. They make up 16% of the population now and will account for 29% of the population by 2050.
The issue has essentially reached a tipping point. It's harder to ignore the problems facing a minority group when they affect a third of the population. And there are economic reasons to care. How well Hispanic school children master their ABCs today will help determine the GDP of tomorrow.
At present, America can boast the best educated workforce in the world but in 50 years' time, the majority of those workers will be Hispanic. If they are uneducated, what hope is there for American global competitiveness?
There are also fears about how poor educational outcomes could lead to greater inequality in America. In a 2009 book, The Latino Education Crisis, professors of education Patricia Gandara and Frances Contreras warn that: "Latino students today perform academically at levels that will consign them to live as members of a permanent underclass... their situation is projected to worsen over time."
Later, they write: "If their situation is not reversed, democracy is in peril."
Many of the problems facing Hispanics affect all minority groups - for example the difficulty of accessing high-quality schooling. But there are problems unique to this group. Consider the language barrier - four million Latino children struggle in class because they are still learning English, even though three quarters of them were born in the United States.
Hispanic mothers have far less education than their counterparts in other ethnic groups. According to Professors Gandara and Contreras, formal education is not as much of a priority in Latin America as it is in the US, so the parents may not be pushing their children to succeed or may feel intimidated by the school system.
There is also the issue of immigration status. On average one million legal immigrants have been admitted to the US each year since 1990, while roughly 500,000 have come illegally or overstayed their visas. According to the Census bureau, 50% of immigrants are from Latin America.
Undocumented children and the US-born children of undocumented parents can be at a disadvantage because their parents may be reluctant to access the full range of support services available for their children.
President Obama tried and failed in 2010 to pass the Dream Act - a law that would give undocumented Latino students, brought to the US as children, the right to US citizenship so they can attend University.
"This is not just a Latino problem; this is an American problem. We've got to solve it because if we allow these trends to continue, it won't just be one community that falls behind - we will all fall behind together," says President Obama.
The law is opposed by those who think that such an amnesty encourages illegal immigration.
Some states are working towards their own version of the Dream Act. The California state legislature passed a bill offering state-sponsored financial aid to non-resident students who attended state high schools for at least three years. The bill is currently awaiting the signature from the governor.
Texas governor Rick Perry, who allowed children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates at Texas's state universities, now finds that position under attack as he runs for President.
There is much debate among politicians and policy makers about whether Hispanic children should get special attention or whether they should be treated like any other low income group in terms of educational inequity.
Whichever way that particular debate shakes out one thing is for certain - the political power of Hispanics is rising. Politicians cannot afford to ignore these challenges much longer.