Ask Norma V. Cantu what the major obstacles are to Latinos' success in school and she shoots back "language and money."
The answer of Cantu, director of educational programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is a succinct description of her organization's strategy in the battle to improve the dismal educational statistics for one of the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority groups. Lawsuits that MALDEF has helped bring have won funding for bilingual education in several states and overturned inequitable school financing systems, most recently in Texas.
Another group has launched pilot projects in 20 cities, hoping to find solutions through programs on such subjects as parenting, dropouts and teacher training. Others have enlisted business and civic groups to help school districts. In California, where Latinos make up 33% of the public schools' kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment, there has been a statewide effort to decrease the high school dropout rate, with much of the special funding going to school districts with high Latino enrollments.
Although it has yet to be bolstered by significant amounts of money, the search for ways to turn things around has grown and diversified in the face of mounting evidence that the nation's schools have been unable to succeed in educating large numbers of Latinos. The most recent study, a report released last week by the Washington-based American Council on Education, concluded that Latinos are "grossly under-represented at every rung of the educational ladder" from enrollment in preschool to attainment of graduate degrees and that in many areas the group was losing ground. The proportion of Latinos completing high school, for example, slid from 60.1% in 1984 to 55.9% in 1989, leaving them significantly behind blacks and Anglos.
As the proportion of Latino-Americans continues to grow--the group represented 8.2% of the U.S. population by 1989--so has concern about their levels of educational attainment.
"Sadly, Hispanic Americans are especially undereducated," President Bush said in 1989 in assigning then-Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos to form the Presidential Task Force on Hispanic Education. "As Hispanics become the largest minority group in the United States in the next century, it becomes more and more important to overcome the crisis in Hispanic Education," Bush said.
Last fall, after the task force had gathered testimony at hearings throughout the nation, President Bush ordered the creation of a special office in the U.S. Department of Education to address Latino education issues and said he would appoint a commission to advise the department on ways to involve more Latino parents in their children's schooling, expand early childhood education programs and improve the group's school achievement.
Latino leaders praised the attention to the problem, but many were concerned about whether there would be sufficient commitment of money and other resources.
An Education Department spokeswoman said Friday that much of the work of the White House Hispanic Initiative has been delayed until the Senate holds confirmation hearings on the President's choice to head the department, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. However, she added that the department is moving ahead with a project to help the children of migrant workers earn high school diplomas.
The department also announced a campaign last week to see that states are following through on programs for bilingual education--teaching children academic subjects in their native language while they are learning English.
Bilingual education is crucial because the traditional alternative--putting children in English-only classrooms--has meant "their education is being put on hold until they do learn English," Cantu said. "That used to be the way we did things in every state. . . . Now in about half the states we don't do that anymore," she said, adding that a major thrust of MALDEF's efforts in education has been to see that states devote some of their school funding to bilingual education.
MALDEF and other groups also filed suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1986, alleging that low-income Latino and other minority students are shortchanged by being schooled in facilities that are older and more crowded, with fewer amenities and less experienced teachers than those in predominantly white communities. The district has denied any intentional inequities and blamed the state, on which it depends for most of its budget, for providing too little money.