Sep 1 2012

Misrepresenting the Latino Education Crisis

Austerity, immigration are the real civil rights issues

Justin Akers Chacon--Photo Credit: San Diego City College

Justin Akers Chacon–Photo Credit: San Diego City College

During recent campaigning, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have appealed to the Latino community by acknowledging the “Latino education crisis.”

Romney told the conservative Latino Coalition that the poor track record of schools serving students of color is “the civil rights issue of our era” (New York Times, 5/24/12). He identified teacher unions as the obstacles to reform (Washington Post, 5/23/12): “The teachers’ unions don’t fight for our children.” His prescription included a federal school voucher program and the expansion of non-union charter schools.

Obama has also linked educational reform to civil rights themes (New York Times, 4/7/11) and embraces conservative pet projects that put him at odds with teachers unions, including merit pay, more rigorous testing and corporate partnerships to expand charters (Extra!, 9/10).

Misappropriating the language of “civil rights,” educational policies that perpetuate racial segregation and economic marginalization are being paraded as reform, and the elite media have been complicit in promoting this narrative. Meanwhile, a real civil rights crisis is affecting Latino students, reflecting new forms of old inequities: austerity and immigration enforcement. But you’ll have to seek out the Latino press to get this side of the story.

Austerity in the classroom
Much attention has been paid to recent U.S. Census Bureau reports on the growing Latino population, including the emergence of a “minority majority” among children born in 2011 (Extra!, 7/12). Yet no column space is given to the effects of austerity on the educational prospects of these youth.

A Washington Post report (3/9/11) shows that Latino children now constitute half of all school-age children in California. But it says nothing about the downsizing of early care and education programs. State funding has been cut by 27 percent over the last three years, amounting to $1 billion in reductions that have removed 80,000 children from these programs (California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, 2012).

Since Latino children already experience the highest poverty rates in the nation, these cuts will disproportionately affect them (Pew, 9/28/11). A recent study shows that disparities in state-funded pre-K programs contribute to lifelong inequalities among children (National Institute for Early Education Research, 2012).

Chad Silva, policy director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, commented in the ethnic press news service New America Media (1/7/12) that “the programs that impact the lowest-income folks are getting cut and are going to hurt them in very significant ways.”

A 2011 survey of California school principals revealed specific effects (Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, 2011): In poorer schools where Latino students are concentrated, there were fewer instructional days, fewer counselors and support staff, larger class sizes, fewer transfer programs and less instructional material. These students also experienced higher rates of student homelessness, residential mobility and food insecurity. Consequently, Latino students have the highest dropout rate of all high school students in the state (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).

The New York Times (5/12/12) has covered the way austerity at the college level is displacing a growing number of students. But only the Latino press sheds light on the particular experiences of Latinos, who receive the least amount of financial aid (FinAid, 9/2/11), despite the fact that students of color depend the most on income-based assistance (Colorlines, 3/26/10).

This contributes to Latinos having the lowest rate of degree attainment of all ethnic groups (National Conference of State Legislatures, 7/11). This is not for lack of desire, but due to the financial difficulties and instability experienced by young Latinos, especially in the current economic crisis.

The New York Times (6/1/12) and others have picked up on the trend of funding cuts and tuition increases in higher education. But the stories about the particular impact these have on Latinos are left overwhelmingly to outlets like Latina Lista, which reported (11/15/11), for example, research showing Hispanic women enrolling in college at similar rates as white women, but trailing them by 18 percent when it comes to finishing a degree by age 26: “One can guess why these young women aren’t finishing school by the age of 26 as their white peers seem to be doing—family/children responsibility, jobs, school affordability.”

The Washington Post (5/31/09) reported that more university-bound students are opting for the lower costs of community college. But that story too has particular meaning for Latinos, as community college is the choice for, for example, 75 percent of California’s Latino population, and 58 percent nationwide (Civil Rights Project, 2/14/12).

Here, too, budget cuts are impeding access and shutting out large numbers of Latinos. The California Community College system, the largest college system in the nation (2.6 million enrolled) with the largest concentration of Latino students, cut $520 million in 2009–10, shutting out 140,000 students (California Community Colleges, 1/10/11). For 2011–12, another $400 million budget cut is projected to exclude another 400,000 students. Meanwhile, some universities are ending their transfer guarantee programs, which are essential pathways for Latino students (Guardian, 2/21/12).

The Latino news source Amigos805 (5/1/12) explored how efforts by one California community college to recruit Latino students from neighboring cities have led to some success, but are now undermined by slashed budgets. The article concludes that “cuts in classes and rising enrollment fees are hurting the chances of Latinos to pursue higher education and …more and more of those students will decide to forgo college.”

Hostile immigration policies
While the majority of Latino youth are U.S. citizens, about 2.1 million are undocumented (Migration Policy Institute, 7/10). Over 4 million Latino youth born in the U.S. have a parent who is undocumented (Pew, 4/14/09), and 52 percent have at least one parent who is an immigrant. About 9 million people live in a “mixed status” family, combining citizens and undocumented immigrants (Pew, 12/1/11).

Since 2000, over 3.3 million people have been deported from the U.S (Pew, 12/28/11). Living with the fear of detention and deportation affects the academic performance of undocumented children, half of whom drop out of high school due to high levels of stress, lack of money for academic activities, and pressures to work to support the family (L.A. Times, 10/22/11). And though some 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, only 5–10 percent go on to college since they are denied all forms of financial aid in most states (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 3/11). Two (Alabama and South Carolina) ban undocumented students from college altogether (National Conference of State Legislatures, 10/11).

Elite media’s discussion of immigration policy glosses over these effects. They rarely examine in-depth the hardships faced by undocumented students in their daily lives, as does New America Media (1/25/12), or the terrible human costs of deportation and family separation, as in La Prensa (10/21/11) or Colorlines (11/2/11, 11/3/11). Immigrant advocacy news sites like not only cover the personal stories, but also make appeals for support for the families (4/6/12).

There is a real crisis facing Latino students today. And it is a civil rights issue of our times. But it’s for reasons that elite media completely miss, and in stories they overwhelmingly do not tell.

Justin Akers Chacon is an Associate Professor of Chican/o Studies at San Diego City College