Hispanic legislators gather with urgency and purpose on education

More than 60 million Hispanic people live in the United States; by 2040, that number is expected to exceed 100 million. Currently, 14 million Hispanic children are part of the mosaic of racial and cultural identities represented in public elementary and secondary schools, and these children deserve equitable educational opportunities and programs designed to help them thrive.

National Hispanic legislators delegation with Cardona
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona with the AFT delegation at the State of Latino Education Summit.

With this in mind, the AFT co-convened the State of Latino Education Summit: Learn, Recover, Reimagine and Thrive, a full day of activities within the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators’ 19th National Summit, held March 24-27 in Washington, D.C. AFT leaders and members joined over 100 Latino legislators, policy influencers, experts and community advocates in an event that resonated with common purpose and comradery to lead conversations about ways to ensure public education supports the success of Latino students from cradle to career.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who headlined the event, noted that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the Latino community and stressed that schools and communities must go beyond pandemic recovery to create something better. “It’s not enough to be reopened,” he said. “If we go back to the way we had schools in March 2020, we are failing our children.” Instead, Cardona said, schools must hire and train more teachers, invest in counselors and mental health supports and work toward authentically engaging parents “regardless of whether they speak English.”

Cardona lauded specific programs, some of which are funded by the American Rescue Plan (ARP)—the economic stimulus package that President Biden signed into law on March 11, 2021. Cardona promoted free, high-quality summer programs for all children and called for counseling as an integral part of schools, condemning a system that has normalized an “unacceptable” student-counselor ratio of 700 to 1. He also underscored the urgency of social-emotional learning, career pipelines to diversify the teaching workforce, child care on college campuses for students who are parents and early childhood education. “In order to build skyscrapers, you need a strong foundation,” said Cardona, “and early childhood ed is that strong foundation.”

Fighting for teachers and early education

AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus emphasized the need for a diverse teacher workforce to provide that strong foundation, sounding a clear message that the AFT stands ready to assist state legislators in making education more accessible to and supportive of Latino students and families.

“Teacher diversity is a key issue for the AFT,” she said. “Latino students need teachers and support staff who look like [them] and understand their upbringing.” She recognized the contributions of hundreds of undocumented teachers who are filling critical shortages and said more states need to expand access to licensure and certification for educators with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. She also called for increases in teacher pay and availability of Latino student scholarships, internships and teaching positions.

National Hispanic legislators conference
AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus participates on a panel discussing K-12 ed at the State of Latino Education Summit.

DeJesus touted the community schools that provide crucial services to Latino communities and advocated for more programming to meet the social and emotional needs of students. “These are perfect subjects of education hearings,” she told legislators. She tasked the legislators with holding government accountable for programs they’ve promised to fund and for the ARP funding that could be spent on these life-changing programs: “We need to make sure these billions of dollars are actually getting spent on the kids who actually suffered the most.”

Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten highlighted some of the innovative programs that school districts have adopted to address the needs of Latino students and families. She pointed to the work of the San Antonio Alliance (AFT Local 67), spearheaded by President Alejandra Lopez, which created a community stakeholder committee of educators, parents, students and community members to help determine how the San Antonio Independent School District utilizes its funding.

For Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens, there are significant opportunities to influence education for good as the United States begins to emerge from a pandemic that exacerbated systemic educational inequities for Latino students and families. “As we think of how … we create change, it’s not putting a Band-Aid on [the problems],” she said. “It’s looking at the entire system and re-creating it with us at the table.” LULAC has a long history of advancing educational equity in the United States. In addition to helping end school segregation in California with its Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit that became a key precedent for Brown v. Board of Education, LULAC was also instrumental in creating the national Head Start programming that promotes early learning, health and well-being for children and families in low-income communities.

Head Start was a primary focus on the conversation about early childhood education. Gloria Garcia, president of the Early Childhood Federation (AFT Local 1475), said “Universal preschool is preventive medicine,” but many families still need to be made aware of Head Start programs and services. Cleo Rodriguez Jr., executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, challenged the archaic laws that define eligibility requirements for Head Start and leave out families who are in need of its services and programs.

In addition to emphasizing language and literacy development and early math and science concepts, Head Start teaches self-regulation and sensory processing and engages parents as partners to build the strong foundation that allows children to succeed in school. “We’re not talking about babysitting,” Garcia said. “We are talking about school readiness.”

Prioritizing access to higher education

A strong early foundation of learning increases the likelihood that children will attend college—provided that barriers to higher education access are addressed. J. Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer of New York State United Teachers, underscored the work of the AFT in removing these barriers for Hispanic students and other students of color by including undocumented students in admissions and financial aid and making college more affordable.

“In the world’s wealthiest nation, institutions of higher education charge higher tuition rates than any other country. The fees put students under tremendous financial pressure, often forcing them to work so many hours that their academic work suffers. And if they manage to graduate, they do so with massive debt,” Abraham said. He assured legislators that as the largest union representing higher education faculty, the AFT is committed to advocating for increased access to higher education.

National Hispanic legislators conference
An AFT delegation task force member asks a question related to funding accountability during a session.

Abraham pointed to recent promising legislation as examples: an influx of funding for Hispanic-serving institutions through the ARP has provided direct financial support to keep college students enrolled and on track to graduate, and New Mexico’s Senate Bill 140, which covers full tuition for most New Mexico residents working toward certificates and associate and bachelor’s degrees in the state’s public or tribal colleges or universities.

Also promising is the work to support Latino students through the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics. Executive Director Melody Gonzales described the aims of this initiative, which include addressing educational inequities through state agency coordination, community engagement and funding that help make college more affordable and increase student access to educational resources and representation of Latinos in education and the government. “How you invest speaks volumes,” she said.

The work of the initiative, the AFT and others also focuses on increasing faculty diversity, another key issue in higher education equity. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 5 percent of higher education faculty are Hispanic. Additionally, Latino faculty and other faculty of color continue to be hired with contingent rather than full-time, tenure-track status. Dr. Margarita Bianco of the University of Colorado Denver School of Education challenged legislators to look at the pathways, including Grow Your Own programs, that help diversify the workforce throughout the continuum of public education. “You can’t become what you don’t see,” she said.

“There could not be a more important time in public education,” said Marten. Although Latino students and families have been devastated by COVID-19 and years of educational inequity, she said there is plenty of hope for recovery. “We know when we give our Latino youth the safety, the nutrition and the education they need to thrive and succeed, we have a better future in front of us.”

[Virginia Myers and Lesley R. Gonzalez]