Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Texas’ economic future depends on giving Hispanic students a better education

Texas’ economic future depends on giving Hispanic students a better education

Houston Chronicle
April 10, 2009

The good news for Texas is that more Hispanic students are attending college than ever before. The bad news is that they lag behind all other ethnic student groups in several important areas, and there are few indications that the situation will improve anytime soon.

As reported by the Chronicle’s Jeannie Kever, when compared with other ethnic groups, fewer Hispanic students graduate from high school in four years and fewer of them enroll in college or a technical training program.

A state plan, Closing the Gaps, was created in 2000, with a goal of raising overall Texas college enrollment rates, which then stood at 5 percent of the population, to the national average of 5.7 percent by 2015. The state’s overall enrollment now stands at 5.3 percent. The rate for Hispanics has increased from 3.7 to 3.9 percent.

That’s not good enough, said Raymund Paredes, higher education commissioner for Texas. He told Kever that with such numbers, the state cannot develop a well-educated workforce. “The Hispanic community is key to the economic future of Texas,” he said.

He’s right: In Texas, and particularly Houston, Hispanics are by far the fastest-growing ethnic group, making up more than 40 percent of the city’s total population, and projected to become a majority by 2030.

Individual universities and colleges have set their own goals, with programs to help Hispanic students enroll in college and earn degrees, but results are mixed. A 2008 report from Texas’ Higher Education Coordinating Board said the state was “somewhat above target” in raising the enrollment of white and black students, but “well below target” with Hispanic students.

The state, which should be at the forefront of the effort, is not only dragging its feet, but is actively opposing measures to level the playing field for Hispanic students, especially those classified as LEP — with limited English proficiency. Not only has the Texas Legislature defunded many areas of public education in recent years — cutting per-student funding by about 20 percent for university students and 35 percent for community college students between 2002 and 2007, as per state comptroller Susan Combs — it is still neglecting to offer measures to provide better programs to LEP students.

The state has appealed a 2008 federal district court ruling that it address those students’ needs, the latest in a series of similar rulings since 1981. The recent ruling, to be reviewed in June, pointed out that Texas high schools and middle schools are losing primarily Spanish-speaking students at twice the rate of other students.

“I don’t think our educational system meets the goals of Hispanic students,” said State Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Democrat whose Houston district is heavily Hispanic. “The most fundamental issue is funding. It comes down to the dollars,” she told the Chronicle. “You have to hire talent to teach.”

Texas, with the sixth-largest student population in the nation, ranks 33rd in teacher salaries.

Fortunately, thanks mainly to federal stimulus funds, the new state budget, which the Legislature is preparing to vote on, looks to provide a welcome boost to public education funding.

Among other increases, the House is proposing that $224 million be added to the base amount of $428 million for the Texas Grants college tuition program, and that $25 million be added to the Texas Opportunity Grant program for older students and those in community colleges.

But more funds need to be channeled to the needs of the state’s Hispanic students, and the Legislature should be addressing those needs directly, not by reacting to lawsuits.

Time is fast running out: The Texas State Data Center projects that by 2030 — the same year that Hispanics are predicted to become a majority in Texas — the state’s average household incomes will have dropped $3,000 unless more people complete a college degree.


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