What the White House Hispanic Education Initiative Means for Us

On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama signed an executive order renewing a major initiative to help combat the massive education gap that plagues the Latino community. For Obama, who has been criticized for not paying enough attention to Hispanic high-school and college drop-out rates, it couldn’t come at a better time. Democrats are facing tough mid-term congressional elections and a recent study found that many Latinos, who name education at the top of their concerns and may be disillusioned with the president’s lack of action on the matter, won’t be going to the polls. The high-profile signing, which took place a day after a Department of Education Latino education summit, is a good political move.

Let’s hope it’s much more than that and that the renewed initiative accomplishes more than it has in its lackluster 20-year, three-president history. Since it was started by George H.W. Bush in 1990 as a group meant to advise the Department of Education and the President on ways to improve Latino education and college attendance, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics has produced exactly four reports. Its history is filled with resignations, political maneuvering, bureaucracy, and little action. Meanwhile, the education numbers for Latinos, as LATINA’s editorial director Galina Espinoza recently pointed out, have reached appalling new lows. While we represent 25 percent of the nation’s students, only half of Latino students graduate high school. Of those that go to college, many drop out because of financial reasons and lack of academic preparation—so only 13 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree or better.

If the initiative’s new director Juan Sepulveda and education chief Arne Duncan want to change those numbers, they’re going to have to push hard for true reforms nationwide in Latino-heavy communities. The president’s Race to the Top strategy, in which states compete for $4 billion, has so far not benefited the six states with the highest Latino students; more encouragingly, Obama earmarked $900 million in grants to schools in the bottom 5%, many of which are attended by Latino students. More focused attention is necessary and the Initiative can help push for that. The fact that Sepulveda spent a year organizing and attending 90 education talks in Latino communities across the country is encouraging.

Duncan laid out the initiative’s four goals: to help communities across the country share best practices; strengthen private and public partnerships; ensure federal programs serve and meet the needs of Hispanic children, youth and adults; and establish inter-agency working groups to push for the improvement of educational opportunities for Latinos. It’s a start, and one that will hopefully lead to concrete programs and funding to better Latinos chances for success.