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Can Latino students get 'educational equity' after the Covid pandemic?

As Latino educators met, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona touted Biden's Build Back Better legislation. “We’ve often heard ... that education is the great equalizer. Well, now’s our chance to prove it. "
Miguel Cardona Confirmation Hearing To Be Secretary Of Education Before Senate HELP Committee
Miguel Cardona, now the secretary of education, testifies at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 3. Susan Walsh / Pool via Getty Images file

Over the last couple of decades, Latino college enrollment had been rising. Latino graduation rates at the high school and college levels also were going up.

There was reason to believe education might finally start to deliver for Latinos as the great equalizer.

Instead, the coronavirus, which has hit Latinos disproportionately, deepened the inequities they had been slowly overcoming through education.

Now Latino educators say they want more than to recover from the pandemic.

“We were already facing so many inequities that this pandemic was a breeding ground for further inequities,” said Feliza Ortiz-Licon, the chief policy and advocacy officer for Latinos in Education, a nonprofit group focused on increasing Latinos’ representation in education and tackling education inequities.

“We feel that with everything the Latino community has gone through that this is really a time for us to reimagine the state of Latino education,” Ortiz-Licon said.

According to Latinos for Education, the proportion of Hispanics in public schools rose from 22 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2018. The overwhelming majority of those children were born in the U.S.  

In 2017, 19 percent of all students enrolled in college were Latino. Fifty-four percent of Latinos in college were earning bachelor’s degrees within six years.

The group opened a two-day virtual gathering Wednesday about the state of Latino education with the theme “Reclaim the Promise of Educational Equity.”

Amanda Fernandez, a co-founder and the CEO of Latinos for Education, said Hispanics weren’t made a priority in the pandemic, despite its deep impact on the community.

Latino enrollments dropped at some colleges and universities because of the pandemic, falling by 1.9 percent this spring, compared to a 2.1 percent increase in spring 2020. In community colleges, where Latinos are concentrated, Latino enrollment fell by 13.7 percent, compared to a 1.7 percent increase in spring 2020.

The parents of many Latinos, including those who immigrated to the U.S., “instilled in us that education was a path to success, and they fought to make that a reality for us,” Fernandez said. “We must agitate when necessary and lean into our ‘ganas’ [desires] and build something better for our community.”

Latinos have experienced higher rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19, as well as lower vaccination rates, although the metrics are improving. Many Latino workers have stayed in their jobs while schools were closed. Latino and Black teachers already were in short supply as the pandemic triggered teacher retirements and resignations and some shortages around the country.

As the Latino educators met, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was sweeping through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to promote the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation, which is hung up in the House as Democrats debate its cost and scope.

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced reforms to the country’s student loan forgiveness program, which has helped fewer borrowers than intended largely because of complex qualification requirements.

“There’s a reason for the sense of urgency,” Cardona said in a recorded address at the group’s virtual gathering. “We’ve often heard and maybe even explained that education is the great equalizer. Well, now’s our chance to prove it. Funding is there. Urgency from the president is there. Are we going to lead through this and come out stronger? I say we can.”

Cardona noted that $130 billion for K-12 education was in the American Rescue Plan, the first pandemic relief bill signed by President Joe Biden, along with $40 billion for higher education.

The Build Back Better legislation, which is estimated to cost up to $3.5 trillion over 10 years, includes two years of free community college for all students. About 52 percent of all college students are enrolled in community college. The bill would also add about $80 billion for Pell grants, which help students pay college costs.

Money for universal pre-K and for school construction and modernization also was in the legislation when it left the House Education and Labor Committee. The sums could change as negotiations continue and the legislation works its way through Congress.

Money for the bill is tied to tax increases that Democrats emphasize would fall on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year, a tax increase on wealthier Americans and a corporate tax increase.

“What if we approach recovery from Covid as an opportunity to truly remake education and make it better?” Cardona asked in the recorded video.

Breaking barriers, engaging families

Latinos for Education held focus groups in August with 44 educators from across the education spectrum. About a third were teachers.

The group arrived at a long list of recommendations, such as helping Spanish-speaking families understand the benefits of early childhood education, repealing laws that deny higher education and financial aid to undocumented students, preparing Latinos better for college, holding institutes of higher education accountable for Latino college completion rates and recruiting Latino students early in high school to direct more of them into teaching.

Katia Paz-Goldfarb, the associate provost for Hispanic Initiatives and International Programs at Montclair State University in New Jersey, faced the prospect of losing Latino students during the pandemic.  

She organized a conference about the long-term impact of Covid-19 on Latino students at the university this summer with other officials from other Hispanic-serving institutions. Many of the officials expressed concern and fear about losing Latino students and setting back the education gains of the last two decades, she said.

High school counselors had been contacting Montclair State University to report that students, many of them Latinos, were choosing not to apply for college because of the pandemic.

The university fared better than other schools, and it isn’t likely to have a significant drop in Latino students, Paz-Goldfarb said, in part because of its work to recognize the challenges and barriers for Latino students and adjust recruitment, including talking to entire families, not just students.

“For a lot of institutions, the way they are looking at recruitment is very small. If you understand culturally how we function, you understand that the decision of going to college is a family decision,” she said. “We need to convince the family, we need to support the family, and the family needs to support the child.”

Latinos have been at the core of the fight for educational equity dating to the Mendez family, who were the main plaintiffs in the landmark 1947 case Mendez v. Westminster, which challenged segregation of Mexican American children in schools and served as a precursor for the Brown v. Board of Education case, Fernandez said.

“Reclaiming the promise of educational equity means reclaiming education as a vehicle of upward mobility,” she said, “as a way to broaden our perspectives and understanding, as a way to reclaim our history and narrative.”

Ortiz-Licon said that even though the public education system “hasn’t always served us well,” Latinos have been loyal to the public education system and have had faith in it. “Will we continue to believe in that promise, that education is the greatest equalizer?” she asked.

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