April 15, 2005

Commentary:

The Truth About Education Policy

By Adam Chavarria

In recent weeks, much has been said and written about the president’s commitment to Hispanic education. Most of the comments have been positive. However, there also have been some misunderstandings of the policy and its implications. It is high time we examined what the state of Hispanic education truly has been over time and why it must be changed.

We should all be alarmed that, until recently, only 17 percent of Hispanic children could read at grade level, the high school dropout rates for Hispanic students have hovered around 27 percent, and only 10 percent of Hispanic Americans graduated from four-year colleges and universities. The functional illiteracy rates among Hispanic Americans have remained exceedingly high for far too long. And too many Hispanic families have lacked the information and knowledge they needed to help their children fulfill the high expectations they have for them. This has been the state of Hispanic education for more than three decades. Why would anyone want to preserve this status quo?

President Bush saw it needed to be changed. Since coming into office, he has embarked on instituting the most sweeping education reform in public schools in decades. Thanks to the president’s leadership and strong bipartisan support in Congress, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was enacted into law and has begun to change the status quo in just the three short years since it was passed. In that time, the academic performance of Hispanic children has begun to improve. Reading and math scores are up and achievement gaps that have persisted for far too long are beginning to close. More importantly, and for the first time ever, public schools must now account for the academic achievement of Hispanic children and youths. No longer can this achievement be masked behind the overall school average for student performance.

Let there be no mistake, NCLB aims to help the Hispanic community. The president’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposes $13.3 billion in Title I grants for economically disadvantaged students, many of whom are Latino. Those funds represent an increase of 52 percent since the enactment of the law. The president’s proposal also includes:

· $678 million to help English language learners become proficient in English and in all the academic content areas;

· $95.9 million to help Hispanic Serving Institutions develop the capacity to enroll, retain and graduate more Hispanic students;

· $390.4 million to help students from migrant families perform at the highest academic levels; and

· $13.7 billion annually, an increase of $1.3 billion, for Pell grants to help make a college education affordable for Hispanic students.

But spending alone will not close the academic achievement gap existing between Hispanic children and their non-Hispanic peers. If that were the case, then the billions of federal dollars that have been spent on public education since 1965 would have closed that gap long before now. The fact is that without accountability for the investment of taxpayer dollars in the education of Hispanic children, we would continue to lament the poor state of their education for years to come. The alternative is not acceptable, and we can no longer afford to make excuses for the persistent failure of schools when it comes to the education of our children.

Our work is far from complete, however. Since becoming law, NCLB has focused primarily on K- 8 education with encouraging results. Despite this progress, Hispanic students are entering high school reading below grade level, not academically prepared in the core subject areas of math and science, and having little access to highly qualified teachers. It is not surprising then that for the last 30 years, up to a third of these students eventually dropped out of high school. This is also unacceptable, and the president’s High School Initiative is destined to change it. The president’s High School Initiative provides $1.5 billion to ensure that a high school diploma is a ticket to success for all students-no matter their race or income-regardless of whether they choose to enter the workforce or go on to college. The president’s High School Initiative, specifically the intervention programs, will provide a more comprehensive approach to eliminating the dropout problem by targeting resources to those Hispanic students who are most at-risk of failing in school.

Let it be said: we finally have the best opportunity in our lifetime to change the status quo-to improve education for Hispanic children for generations to come. And change it we must.

Adam Chavarria is executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

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