Orginally published to: Forbes - December 16th, 2021
Education policy must keep pace with a student demographic growing at record pace
In 2021, many parents took to the polls and demanded more influence over decisions that affect their children’s futures. In 2022, we can expect the fastest growing segment of public-school parents in the U.S. to build on that momentum – and make a big impact on education policy as a result.
According to the most recent census, Hispanics and Latinos account for more than half of U.S. population growth over the last decade, reaching 18.7 percent of the total population in 2020. And nowhere is this demographic shift more pronounced than in our schools, where the Hispanic and Latino population increased from 22 to 27 percent between 2009 and 2018.
“The story isn’t just in the overall numbers” says Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). “This is a population that is younger, with more school aged children – and it isn’t concentrated in select regions of the country anymore. Hispanics and Latinos are now a significant part of the community in every state across the nation – and that has big implications for public education.”
Mr. Saenz notes that while many schools have had time to adjust to the changing learning needs of such a diverse student population, there are also those that have been caught off guard by such rapid growth and expansion. And while impressive gains have been made in terms of nationwide student performance, they haven’t been enough to close an achievement gap that has existed in public schools for generations.
With Hispanics and Latinos representing not only more students than ever before, but more voters than ever before too (who are more invested in education issues than ever before as well), policymakers need to ensure that our schools and school systems are meeting the needs of this rapidly growing and critically important demographic. According to the experts, here are three places to start:
Ensure Title 1 funding goes where it belongs
When it comes to questions of finance, meeting the needs of Hispanic and Latino learners isn’t just a matter of throwing more money at a larger number of students; it’s about ensuring that the system is working as it was designed. Title 1 of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) exists to create more equity for public schools that don’t generate enough revenue from local property taxes. The problem is, those funds don’t always go where they should.
“We need more transparency as to what district administrators and local school boards are doing with Title 1 funds,” says Amalia Chamorro, Director of Education Policy at Unidos U.S. “With more transparency comes more accountability. And with more accountability comes more equitable funding decisions from those in power.” There are now more Hispanic and Latino students in Title 1 schools than any other racial or ethnic group. As that population continues to grow, spending Title 1 funds as they are intended will be critical to its success.
Align federal, state, and local education agency efforts
While the federal government has jurisdiction over Title 1 programs and their funding, state and local education agencies control curriculum design, instructional practices, and access to technology. To ensure equity for all students, the three levels need to be aligned. “We can’t afford to be afraid of uniformity when it comes to ensuring equality,” says MALDEF’s Thomas Saenz. “Our kids need it.”
That’s especially true at a time when some states are using waivers and other tactics to subvert ESSA’s equity measures. Stricter compliance with federal laws regarding funding, and adherence to the goals of FAPE would help blunt such efforts – and help ensure that diverse perspectives and needs are taken into account when state and local officials make policy.
Dual language immersion programs
Did you know that there are five million English language learners enrolled in U.S. public schools today? Or that 77 percent of those students are Hispanic and Latino? Dual language immersion programs go a long way in acclimating these students and helping them catch up with their native-English-speaking peers. But according to Amalia Chamorro – who was an English learner herself after immigrating to the U.S. from Peru at the age of nine – there simply aren’t enough seats in these programs to meet rising demand.
“We’re seeing very limited slots and too many students that are having difficulties accessing them,” says Ms. Chamorro. “At the same time, we need to help teachers develop the skills necessary to teach in dual language environments – and offer native language assessments in order to ensure that English learners are properly placed.” Ms. Chamorro is encouraged that these assessments and other dual language initiatives are now included under federal law through ESSA, but she also notes that “many states are having difficulty standing them up and – even more important – scaling them for the level of demand that exists and is expected.”
“Separate but equal has no place…”
When discussing the issue of uniform standards, Thomas Saenz points to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which affirmed the unconstitutionality of racial segregation among Black and white students in public schools: “Back then, the court made a powerful statement about our schools as the places where our communities come together.”
In the context of the explosive growth we’re seeing in Hispanic and Latino student populations, this sentiment couldn’t be more accurate. Our schools are indeed the places where our country should come together. America’s melting pot of cultures, traditions, races, and ethnicities is perhaps more on display in our classrooms than anywhere else in American life.
So, while the statistics laid out above certainly make a strong electoral case for doing more to ensure that Hispanic and Latino students have the tools they need to succeed, there’s an even more powerful argument to be made: That our schools ought to reflect not just the students they serve, but the values our country strives to uphold each and every day.