The Tower Center and Latino Center for Leadership and Development (LCLD) held a conference with SMU Simmons School of Education and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute June 21 to discuss the current state of Latino education in the U.S. and Texas. The conference opened with a keynote address from Dr. Michael McLendon, Dean of the School of Education at Baylor University.
McLendon opened the conference with a look at where Latinos stand, citing a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. More Latinos are getting degrees and the high school dropout rate is declining, but a gap still persists between Hispanic attainment and the rest of the community. The high school dropout rate is highest for Hispanic students at 12 percent. Hispanic students are also least likely to have student debt, in part because they are more likely to attend two-year programs and community colleges. Why is Latino education so important? Sixty percent of the student body at Texas universities are Latino, McLendon said. When voting, education is considered as important of an issue to Hispanics as terrorism and the economy.
McLendon laid out steps that would improve college access for Latinos. Most important to him was educating families early about college opportunities and various financial plans available to them. “By the time kids are in their junior and senior years of high school, it’s too late for families to plan financially,” McLendon said.
The first panel of the conference looked at education policy in the state of Texas. Miguel Solis, president of the LCLD, opened the panel noting that 72 percent of students in Dallas Independent School District (DISD) are Latino, and 41 percent of students learn English as their second language. Solis argued that having more Latino representatives on school boards is essential in order to provide students with shared experience and empathy.
“It doesn’t take a Latino to govern a Latino,” Solis said, “but it certainly helps.” Solis was the first Latino to be appointed to serve on the DISD Board of Trustees.
AJ Crabill, Deputy Commissioner for Governance at the Texas Education Agency, followed by saying that student outcomes won’t change until adult behaviors do. Here are two major takeaways from the panel:
1)Early education matters
Both panelists stressed the importance of early childhood education as the primary driver for future success. When Hispanic students arrive at kindergarten or first grade, the majority have heard less words than other students and therefore start school already behind. These students are also much less likely to be literate by third grade, Solis said. For him, this means investing in early childhood is essential.
Crabill agreed. He said that an overwhelming majority of under-performing schools in Texas are elementary schools. His priority is encouraging districts to take advantage of early-learning programs that the state provides. Crabill also advocated for reallocating part of the 9-12 budget to boost early education programs. He said even though it would mean increasing class sizes and reducing staff, it’s those kind of hard decisions that have to be made to solve the problem. He acknowledged that it’s a tough call, but “hard evidence shows it’s the right call for kids.”
Solis and Crabill said that by the time students reach high school it’s too hard to correct what was missing from their early education. For them, it makes more sense to get it right from the start.
2) Students need realistic role models
An audience member asked the panelists about the role of the media and missing colored heroes and heroines in popular films and shows. He wondered if students saw people that looked like them having successful careers in textbooks, brochures, etc., that would help students have greater expectations for their future.
Crabill said that kids get the impression of what is possible for them from people who they routinely interact with, not from what they see on TV or read about in books. He argued that what’s missing from these kids’ lives are good, caring adults who have experienced success being present in their lives. Successful adults need to get personally involved. “When they are personally involved, it’s permanently transformative,” he said.
The second panel switched focus to federal policy, featuring Gisela Ariza, a policy analyst for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and SMU’s Denisa Gandara, assistant professor of education. Tower Center postdoctoral fellow Aileen Cardona-Arroyo moderated the panel.
Ariza opened the panel by looking at education issues through a human rights lens. President Trump’s proposed education budget slashes funding by $9.2 billion. This would harm Title I funding, which she argued was something Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand. The cut would also wipe out Title IV funding, which is federal student aid programs that help students afford college.
What Ariza is most concerned about, however, is DeVos’s $250 million proposal for a Voucher program, or what Republicans call school choice. The problem with these programs, Ariza argued, is that they open up students to discrimination. She referenced a concerning interview in which DeVos was unable to say whether or not she would protect students from discrimination. In this example, Rep. Clark described a school in Indiana that does not allow gay or transsexual students to enroll but was approved by the state to receive government funding via the Voucher program. DeVos said each school could determine its own admission policies and that she would not interfere to ensure no student, such as an LGBTQ student, is discriminated against.
Ariza also mentioned that June marks the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Plyer v. Doe that declared states can’t deny children free public education because of their status as an immigrant. This decision might be in jeopardy under the Trump administration, but 88 percent of immigrant children are born in the U.S. and are therefore guaranteed access to free education in the Constitution.
Gandara began her portion of the panel with an emphasis on the benefits of higher education — which she says is critical for attainment on both the personal and societal level.
The U.S. has made progress in higher education, but an alarming gap for Latinos persists. Four-year graduation rates for Hispanics is 30 percent, and it’s 40 percent for all students. One primary barrier, Gandara said, is Hispanic families have limited knowledge of how the college system works. They don’t understand FAFSA, or how banks and loans work.
Another persistent barrier is affordability. Tuition is two to five times higher than the median net worth of Latino households. Latinos are also less likely to borrow money to attend college, partly because they attend community colleges at a higher rate, and partly because they don’t understand or trust the loan process. Gandara thinks borrowing could help get more students to college.
Her policy solutions are to simplify FAFSA and allow Federal Pell Grants to be used year-round. She ended her talk looking at free college programs. The obvious benefits are access and increased enrollment, according to Gandara. She said the concerns lie in the question of who is actually benefiting and whether or not increased enrollment also leads to a higher success rate for completion. She suggests free college programs should have an income cap to ensure the funding is going to low income students.
Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board issued the closing remarks. The theme of his talk was “we’re getting better, but we’re not getting better fast enough.”
Even though more Latinos are attending college, the numbers aren’t good enough according to Paredes. Latinos are 41 percent of the Texas population, but only 25 percent of people with a higher education credential are Hispanic. He also noted Latino men are the subgroup least likely to participate in higher education (only 3 percent do), followed by black men at 4.2 percent participation.
He argued the Texas’s youthful population is one of the state’s greatest opportunities; it’s one of the few states that has a growing college-going population. But there’s work to be done. In Texas, older generations are more educated than younger generations. The opposite is true in every other state except California, where the populations are equally educated. This is because California and Texas both have high levels of immigration.
He stressed the importance of getting it right for Latinos — the future success of Texas’s economy is dependent on it. By 2050, Latino workers in Texas will outnumber Anglo workers three to one. And for Paredes, getting it right means getting more Latinos to college. Over 99 percent of job growth during the recovery went to workers with higher education credentials.