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The State of Latino Education: A War Against Ignorance

The State of Latino Education: A War Against Ignorance

The population of Latinos in the United States has skyrocketed to approximately 40 million, and they’ve begun to move into virtually every state in the union, particularly into the Midwest, Northwest and Southeast. Yet, with the exception of many schools in the Southwest, many schools from K-12 to the college level are not prepared to handle this influx of new students, many of whom are Spanish-speaking.
“At the University of Iowa, there’s not a deep understanding of Latinos,” says Adele Lozano, multicultural coordinator at the University of Iowa. Similar to other universities, particularly in the Midwest, she says, the university recruits people of color, but then doesn’t know what to do with them, resulting in poor retention rates. The same is true of faculty and staff, she adds.
And while people of Mexican descent still make up the vast majority of Latinos in the United States (about two-thirds), there has been a great increase in the number of Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and South Americans. What this has meant and means is that ethnic/Chicano/Latino studies has had to accommodate these expanding populations … or still needs to.
Resources continue to shrink — even with the growing Latino population. Cutbacks are rampant while the legitimacy of students of color on campuses continues to be challenged. Some even say that while the Black and Brown populations continue to grow, a resegregation is beginning to occur on college campuses nationwide due to right-wing policies — proof that the march of history is not always forward.
The era being examined, 1984-2004, is decidedly different from when I attended UCLA a generation before — a time when people of color fought, marched, rallied and picketed together to break down the walls of segregation and to create and defend ethnic studies. The past 20 years can be characterized by retrenchment and cutbacks and the ever predictable fight over crumbs that pits people of color against each other during a time of greatly diminishing resources. One can argue that retrenchment actually began in earnest with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. And one could also argue that resources have not actually diminished. What has diminished is the societal commitment to education for all.

The Promise of Parity
A generation ago, a 1982 Texas decision, Plyler v. Doe, permitted undocumented K-12 students to pay in-state tuition, as opposed to the higher tuition charged to out-of-state residents or foreigners. The precedent-setting 1985 Leticia A decision permitted undocumented students to attend colleges in California. Both of these decisions were in recognition that the legal status of these students was not of their own doing and that they, most who had come to the United States as children, were entitled to an education just like their American-born classmates. For a while, other states followed this lead, but within a few short years, this trend came to a halt. Instead, over the past 20 years, the move toward equality for these students has been in an apartheid-like direction, subjecting them and remanding them into separate legal categories, depriving them of an excellent education.
Nationwide, undocumented students are fighting for the right to not only enroll at colleges and universities, but to do so as state residents.
Daniela Conde, a UCLA student, recently noted, “Each year, some 65,000 high school students nationwide graduate at the top of their class and are then denied, due to their legal status, the right to continue their higher education.”
Conde, a sophomore, is a member of the Immigrant Rights Coalition that has come together with the DREAM TEAM Coalition in Los Angeles to push for passing of the DREAM Act. “The DREAM Act,” she says, “is just one step in the movement for immigrant rights for students.” The act would adjust the status of undocumented students and allow them to apply for work-study and loans to finance their college education. 
The anti-affirmative action movements and legal initiatives, such as Proposition 209 in California and court decisions such as the 1994 Hopwood v. Texas, have ensured that the promises of parity of a generation ago are far from being realized. The current administration, rather than move away from a reliance on standardized testing, which has been widely discredited and shown to be racially biased, has embraced more testing under the No Child Left Behind Act. Many experts agree that this emphasis on standardized testing is one reason for students dropping out of school.
College enrollment among minorities has been affected by not only legal challenges but economic as well. As a result of the massive federal deficit and national debt, compounded by record-setting state deficits, tuitions at colleges and universities have continued to skyrocket, making it increasingly unaffordable for people of color. On top of this, economic pressures have resulted in states massively cutting back on educational funding, which is leading the way toward resegregation at the nation’s top colleges and universities. And the promise that the community-college system would be a route for people of color to access four-year institutions also has not panned out.
In California, for example, a combination of all of these factors has resulted in an enrollment drop among minorities at the nine-campus University of California system. Recent statistics released by recruitment officers at the University of California show that at UC-Berkeley, Chicano/Latino admissions fell 7 percent, from 1,030 to 955 last fall. American Indian admissions declined 22 percent, from 51 to 40. And African American students offered admission dropped 29 percent, from 298 to 211. There have been similar drops at UCLA, UC’s other top-tier university. And as if things weren’t already heading in a bad direction, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently eliminated funding for diversity outreach programs.
Over the years, the bilingual education movement also held great promise. However, teachers today in California are compelled to carry out the provisions of Proposition 227, which essentially forbids bilingual instruction in the classroom. This certainly isn’t the most conducive atmosphere by which to promote higher education for the nation’s Latino students.
Attacks against bilingual education are usually spearheaded by non-educators using non-pedagogical arguments. The attacks are not exactly subtle as they devalue and destroy that which the student brings with him/her — his/her ancestral language and culture. Chicano/Latino students, along with other minorities, have experienced a backlash against “the cult of multiculturalism.” In regards to Latinos, for the past decade, right wing and anti-immigrant political organizations have taken to attacking MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) as a “separatist” and “racist” organization. MEChA, a national student organization, which was founded in 1970, has hundreds of chapters nationwide. Its mission is to combat racism and discrimination and to promote higher education.
The assaults against MEChA have been ratcheted up a notch this year. The UCLA chapter of the Young College Republicans raised approximately $30,000 from off-campus sources to attack the legitimacy of MEChA and to go after its campus charter. In fact, students at Stanford recently decided in May to defund MEChA of $40,000 under the same pretext and under similar right-wing pressure. MEChA is challenged because, like the Black Student Union or similar organizations, it refuses to be silent on issues of inequality and injustice.
And despite an anti-people-of-color climate both at the policy level and at campuses nationwide, the demographic and turf wars among people of color continue at many higher education institutions. On many campuses, the horse race over who is the majority minority and who deserves more, still serves as a useful subterfuge for administrations that essentially benefit from these silly turf wars.
Lastly, the drastic cuts to education exacerbate these tensions, as does being at war. A fuller debate over the war in Iraq belongs elsewhere, but it appears that when this country commits to something, resources are made available. With the amount of money being used to wage the current war, every student who wants to be educated, could be educated (at no cost to them) and sent to graduate and professional school — with plenty of money left over. The only thing that prevents this from becoming a reality is this country’s failure to make education a top priority.
Perhaps we could call it a war against ignorance. 

Roberto Rodriguez was a Black Issues correspondent from 1990-2000. He currently co-writes the nationally syndicated “Column of the Americas” with his wife, Patrisia Gonzales, and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He can be reached at [email protected].

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