Monday, December 28, 2009

Debate grows over Hispanic Education Act

By Heather Clark / The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — Some legislators are asking where the money will come from for a Hispanic Education Act proposed by Gov. Bill Richardson this week and why the measure is even necessary.

Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said the proposed act is needed to close an achievement gap for Hispanic students, who score lower in reading and math than their white and Asian counterparts. Hispanic students' graduation rate is about 56 percent, compared to a 71 percent graduation rate for white students.

A state Public Education Department spokeswoman said their research shows the proposal, should it become law, would be the first of its kind in the country.

Garcia said the proposal would focus her department's efforts on the Hispanic achievement gap, in part by providing curricula based on Hispanic culture and language and boosting parental involvement. She said she wants to be able to quantify the work to measure its impact on the achievement gap.

Nearly 56 percent of the students in New Mexico schools are Hispanic, so Garcia says closing the achievement gap "is an economic and a moral imperative."

State Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Carlsbad and ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, said he believes the PED already has the authority to focus on Hispanic students, so a separate act is unnecessary.

Rep. Dennis Roch, a Tucumcari Republican who is the assistant superintendent of Tucumcari Public Schools, said the proposed act is grounded in a good idea, but carrying it out could be problematic.

Roch says when administrators concentrate on one ethnic group, other groups stagnate, which would close the achievement gap, but wouldn't be in the best interest of all students.

"I would hate to see us get in the situation where there's a separate act for every subgroup," he said.

Roch says much of what is proposed is already being done by schools.

School districts have programs in place to help English language learners, many of whom are Hispanic, and bilingual teachers are bringing the Hispanic culture into the schools through stories, folklore and other means to make education more accessible to them, he said.

"While a Hispanic Education Act looks good in the paper, it's not going to go far in improving programs that are already robust," he said.

Garcia said the proposal would be modeled on the state's Indian Education Act of 2003.

That act created an Indian Education Division in PED and an Indian Education Advisory Council. The division helps school districts and tribes plan and implement curricula in native languages, culture and history.

Despite the act, the graduation rate for Native American students is worse than for Hispanic students at just under 50 percent.

But Garcia credits the act for improvement in Native American math and reading scores over the past five years.

The number of Native American fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders who were at or above proficient has doubled or more than doubled. Native American students also saw their reading test scores rise during that period, according to state statistics.

But the percentages of Native American fourth and eighth graders scoring at or above proficient from the 2004-05 school year through the last school year still were less than students from other ethnic groups.

Lawmakers from both parties questioned where the money would come from to carry out the proposed act, particularly if new resources and personnel are needed.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said with the state's budget crisis, any new programs will be heavily scrutinized this year.

"It's going to be tough for brand new initiatives. We're having a tough time holding the ground for programs we've already established," Smith said.

Garcia said under the current economic conditions, the act would make use of existing resources.

The achievement gap issue facing New Mexico is one being felt nationwide, Garcia said.

"The impact to our entire nation is significant, if we don't do something," she said.

Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque and vice chairman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, will sponsor the bill. Garcia said she hopes to be able to propose something to the Legislature by January.

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