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Education for a Democracy: Money, Green Card Not Required

Education for a Democracy: Money, Green Card Not Required

Last spring, the nation watched as unprecedented numbers of students walked out of their schools in opposition to U.S. House of Representative Bill 4437: The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Control Act. The students’ energy and optimism for the future were palpable. These were not the apolitical, apathetic or out-of-control teenagers that the media often depict. Instead, these primarily working class Latina/o students are part of a growing movement for social justice. Many are bilingual, the children of immigrants. Latina/o organizers see these students’ potential, but so do military recruiters, who are ubiquitous on working-class campuses. However, the U.S. government and America’s schools are doing little to build on these students’ strengths, invest in their futures or ensure their place in institutions of higher education.

In some cases, schools are actually squelching students’ cultural resources and their enthusiasm for learning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scripted “drill and grill” education that feeds our current “testocracy” under No Child Left Behind. Such forms of education foster endullment and rote memorization over critical thinking and active engagement. Likewise, the elimination of bilingual education and the limited use of multiculturally aware curriculums in K-12 classrooms devalue students’ cultural capital and hinder our advancement as a diverse society. Even in institutions of higher education, there are few courses on the dynamics of power and inequality, and programs in Asian American studies, Black studies, Chicano/Latina studies, and American Indian studies remain underfunded, understaffed and under assault.

Within our colleges and universities, too many poor and working-class students are being excluded. Using 2002 data, Hispanic Outlook journalist Michelle Adam exposed vast socioeconomic gaps in college completion rates. Though more than half of all 18-to-24-year-olds from families making over $90,000 had obtained a bachelor’s degree, only 6 percent of their counterparts from families making less than $35,000 had graduated from college. Since the 1980s, neoliberal reforms have devastated social programs like affirmative action, designed to increase the rates of college attendance among the under-represented. At the same time, the U.S. government’s emphasis has moved away from grants and toward loans. So, students rather than taxpayers are covering the costs of higher education. For example, in the California State University system, declines in state funding from 2002-2005 were passed on to students as fee hikes, pricing working-class students out of college. A 2005 report from the California Faculty Association indicates that though college applications at the CSU campuses are at a record high, student enrollment has declined.

These assaults on funding are detrimental to all working-class students, but Latinas/os are especially impacted because of their lower-than-average family incomes and unequal access to financial aid. According to a 2005 report by Excelencia In Education, for the past 10 years, Latinas/os have received the lowest average financial aid award of any racial group in the United States. On average, the financial aid packages of low-income students actually leave more need unmet than the packages provided to wealthier students. The results are that poorer students, especially Latinas/os, are not attending college, or they are enrolling in community colleges where retention and transfer rates remain low.

Educational access is a civil rights issue, and as the cost of higher education becomes increasingly prohibitive, we must push for a redistribution of resources so that truly no child is left behind. The growth in merit-based over need-based grants must be reversed to ensure that working-class students have complete access to college. As part of this struggle, it is critical that state and federal financial aid be increased and extended to undocumented students. The DREAM Act of 2006 — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — is only one important step in this struggle for inclusion. The act would allow the at least 50,000 undocumented students who graduate each year from U.S. high schools to pay in-state tuition and to change their immigration status from “alien” to a conditional legal, permanent resident.

As I look toward the start of fall semester, I am hopeful that the courageous students who walked out of their schools in support of social justice will soon fill our colleges and universities. For me, they embody the type of education that I am trying to convey in my courses — one that extends beyond the classroom and involves critical thinking, active engagement and social change.

— Dr. Gilda L. Ochoa is an associate professor of sociology and Chicana/o studies at Pomona College in California.

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