Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said education is the civil rights issue of our generation. Members of Hispanic media met Wednesday for a press conference on programs the Obama Administration is pushing forward to bridge the education gap between minorities and privileged students.
President Obama said last month that he aims to raise the United States to the country with the highest graduation rate by 2020. As of now, one third of Hispanic students drop out before graduating high school. The PEW Hispanic Research Center reported that 90 percent of Latinos ages 16 to 25 said a college education was important for success. But 48 percent of them also said couldn’t afford to attend college.
“I would argue it’s a time of education crisis. We’re not where we need to be as a country,” said Duncan. Hispanic students account for 22 percent of students in the public school system, many of whom he says struggle with economic and language barriers.
“But it’s often in times of crisis when there’s historic reform. I firmly believe we have to educate our way to a better economy,” he said. “The future of our country is linked inextricably to the success of Latino students. “
While No Child Left Behind made it so 50 states set their own standards, Duncan envisions one common “high bar.” Duncan said “unprecedented resources” are being channeled toward early childhood education and college readiness.
Under The Recovery Act, $5 billion have been invested in early development programs while another $8 billion will be allotted for early childhood within the next eight years. He said this could help fight the “catch-up business” schools play that takes away time for learning new information.
As it stands, Hispanics have the fewest sources for early childhood programs. He said stepping up access and quality of those programs will help level the playing field from the start of a child’s education.
However, the focus of the 2020 initiative lies with retention and graduation. Duncan called for a rigorous college career-ready standards. Of the 2,000 high schools in America, 75 percent of dropouts are minority students.
The Department of Education has allotted $300 billion more in grants just next year and will provide awards to a total of 730,000 students. Duncan said Hispanic students who are tempted to work and earn money need to see that short-term setbacks will result in long-term economic benefits with a college degree.
“We want to let every student know that that money is going to be there for them if they do the right thing and they keep chasing that dream,” he said.
The DOE will also dramatically simplify and translate the student loan FAFSA form to make college loans more accessible.
The DREAM Act, a bill introduced in May of this year, would provide temporary citizenship to illegal immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools. The students need to have lived in the U.S. for five years and within six years, the student must acquire a degree in higher education or have two years of good standing in an institution.
Emilio Gonzalez, Vice President of strategic alliances for Verizon, announced a $35 million program that provides free digitized content from major providers like the Smithsonian to classrooms with Spanish translations.
“We’re here as proud supporters of this initiative because we’re also concerned with how the Latino community is going to do in navigating the succession that needs to take place,” Gonzalez said.
Duncan noted programs that would encourage educators to continue raising the bar. Congress recently passed a new initiative that would relieve teachers of their student loans if they work as educators for the state for 10 years.
The Recovery Act saved nearly hundreds of thousands of teacher jobs, he said. The Department of Education’s budget in the Recovery Act provided the largest higher education funding since the GI bill sent WWII veterans to college.
“Education has to be the great equalizer in America,” said Duncan. “This represents an unprecedented commitment that would have a disproportionate benefit for Latino students.”