Lawmakers discuss Latino education gap

Greg Nash

Hispanic students face an uphill battle in entering and succeeding in secondary education, according to lawmakers and experts attending an event hosted Tuesday by Excelencia in Education, Gallup and The Hill.

Gaps in achievements between Latino and white students have come to the forefront with the No Child Left Behind law, said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).


“One very important positive occurred as a result of that legislation, which was hated by so many people for so long. The positive is that it forced America to at least grapple with the huge achievement gaps that exist in American public education between kids living in poverty and other kids, between kids of color, including Latino students, and Anglo students,” he said.

Those gaps, argued Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), are heightened by the fact that many Latino students come from underserved schools, but also because they don’t receive adequate guidance at higher levels.

“We’ve conflated two issues, I think, that we have to untie. Over the years, we’ve talked about getting students college-ready, for example,” said Castro. “It doesn’t really speak to building an infrastructure so that you have college advisers and counselors there to help guide students to college.”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said schools need to provide that guidance, especially for underprivileged students who may not find it at home.

“I don’t think you can start early enough, is the reality. And the fact that you still have so many young men and women who don’t have anybody in their life that may have gone to college or know what it’s like in order to be successful,” said Hurd.

The guidance process is tricky, as counselors have to navigate a fine line between serving the students’ future economic interests and not suppressing their personal aspirations.

“I don’t think everybody needs a four-year degree, but I do think that we have to be very careful not to repress a desire to get a four-year degree,” said Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, which has 80 percent Latino enrollment.

Natalicio added that vocational studies provide a realistic alternative to four-year degrees, but it’s important to avoid channeling students toward those programs based solely on their economic situation.

“That’s a consolation prize. If the student wants to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience, you just have to encourage those high aspirations and I think that for far too long, there has been a tendency to track low-income students, whatever their ethnicity, into these vocational programs,” she said.

Also holding back educational achievements are outdated measures of success, like high school graduation rates.

“The reality is that the high school credential was your ticket to the middle class 20 years ago; it’s your ticket to poverty today,” said Madeline Pumariaega, the chancellor of the Florida College System.

That often forces underprivileged students with high academic aspirations to choose between taking on expensive student loans and starting their university education through community colleges.

Community colleges are often underfunded, but they provide access to higher education.

“The [community college] funding per student is less than what the vocational schools are being funded in the State of Massachusetts. And that’s our challenge,” said Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

By contrast, Madeline Pumariega, chancellor of the Florida College System, said the Florida community college funding model is yielding positive results, as their funding system relies on new ways to measure success.

For instance, the Florida system recognizes that not all students will finish two-year programs within three years, as they juggle work and school. So the system focused on retention, rather than completion within that time frame, as a better indicator to decide funding for the schools.

“What I would hope is that we don’t use performance incentive funding punitively,” said Pumariega.

Castro said Hispanic students should see student loans as an investment.

“Anybody that’s carrying student debt knows that there’s this fear that you’re going to be unemployed and not be able to pay back a loan,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to understand that just as you would buy a car, or a house, or something else, that it’s an investment in your future.”

Tags Joaquin Castro Michael Bennet Will Hurd
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