Education Secretary Turns His Focus To Latinos

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that improving U.S. education should be a top priority, and both parties. Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with Latino advocacy groups and Spanish language news organizations to talk about why education is also a civil rights issue. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Claudio Sanchez, who attended the meeting, for an update.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, he's been called America's top cop and now he's moving on. LAPD Chief William Bratton is retiring. We'll find out what's next for him and for the department in just a few minutes. And we'll find out about an honor for the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, Edward Brooke. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about education. Throughout the summer and the fall, we've been talking about the major issues and debates in American education. During last year's presidential campaign, both major party candidates agreed that education should be a major priority. Indeed, both agreed with advocacy groups that education should be considered a top civil rights issue.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with Latino advocacy groups and Spanish language news organizations. NPR's Claudio Sanchez was there, and he joins us now in our studio to talk about it. Claudio, thank you so much for joining us once again.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Why did Arne Duncan meet with Latino groups per se?

SANCHEZ: Latinos had been asking Secretary Duncan to meet with them only because it seems that education and immigration - I'm not so sure which one is most important to them - but have been the two topics showing some concerns. And certainly they wanted to know more and directly from the secretary about what the administration is going to be doing to address some of the really big issues.

MARTIN: What sort of the reasons they wanted to see?

SANCHEZ: The numbers is what gives this whole issue of Latino education the urgency. In 1993, for example, Latinos accounted for just under 13 percent of all public school students. By 2008, that was 22 percent, one out of five -huge growth mostly in the south, southeastern United States. Since the mid-1990s almost all of that growth has been in suburban schools. People think it's rural or urban, but it hasn't.

Ninety nine percent has been driven by Latinos in suburban school systems. South again, south and southeastern U.S. have seen the most dramatic growth. Since 1995, the number of students in U.S. schools who are not native English speakers has shot up 60 percent. In 20 states, that number has doubled. That's extraordinary. These so-called English language learners often referred to as ELLs drop out in huge numbers. A third of all ELL ninth graders do not finish high school. These are all government (unintelligible).

MARTIN: So goes the achievement of Latino students, so goes the achievement of a huge number of American students overall.

SANCHEZ: Precisely. Remember that the projections for 20, 25 years down the road is that, at some point, Latinos are going to constitute half of the U.S. school-age population. That's already happened in many school districts like Texas and California.

MARTIN: So what was Arne Duncan's message at this meeting?

SANCHEZ: Well, Mr. Duncan essentially gave a pretty, you know, packaged speech, one that people have heard before, citing certainly what the administration is doing with its money, a lot of money these days. He threw out an interesting figure. He said that back in 2000 Secretary Rod Paige under the Bush administration had about $17 million to spend on so-called innovation and money to prod states and districts to do something different, something better.

He has $10 billion. I mean, that tells you everything about what this administration thinks it can do. The frustration with the folks in the crowd, certainly in the Latino community in general, is that you haven't really told us what you're going to do with that money. And they cite the fact that early childhood education, for example - which is so crucial to the Latino community - has yet to see any of that money.

And, you know, Secretary Duncan has kept saying, wait, be patient, we're going to start doing these things. I think that a lot of what Mr. Duncan faces the dilemma is that so little of this really has been debated in the Congress because the Congress is preoccupied with so much, certainly the war and health care.

MARTIN: One of the ongoing debates in education, as you know and as you've talked to us about, is what's most important in student achievement? Is it the parents and what's happening at home or is it what's happening at school? Here, Arne Duncan was asked, how do you encourage Latino families to stress the importance of education? And let's play a short clip and see what he had to say.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): It's really making schools community centers. It's engaging families. And what I saw when we open the doors and we meet students and parents halfway they respond. They're successful. When we meet families halfway, when we give them opportunity, our students can do extraordinarily well.

MARTIN: What's he saying?

SANCHEZ: A lot of this again is packaged. It's things that he said before. The only thing that I guess people should read into this is that he's talking from his Chicago experience. Mr. Duncan did reach out to the Latino community. It was a very mixed record, according to the people I talked to. Because for every child that he may have reached, there were at least five, 10, maybe even 50 kids who were not reached.

These are kids, who are still struggling, who are still dropping out of high school, who are still clearly not on a path to making it beyond high school. And that's the source of the frustration that we hear Mr. Duncan talk about community schools, for example, but how many community schools did he create really in Chicago? Or how many are in a position to create those kinds of extended services to families that engage and bring parents in to stress the importance?

MARTIN: When you say the source of the frustration, was there frustration at the meeting? Did you have a sense that these groups are getting impatient with his efforts?

SANCHEZ: There sure was. And, you know, I was able to talk to Ana Sol Gutierrez former school board member in Montgomery County and…

MARTIN: Montgomery County, Maryland.

SANCHEZ: Maryland.

MARTIN: …which is a suburb of Washington, D.C. - a quite affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.

SANCHEZ: Precisely, but where Latino achievement is actually pretty low. Some parents in Montgomery County, again a wealthy county, complained that, you know, their kids are warehoused essentially. There aren't nearly enough programs or teachers who can deal with them. And now that Sol Gutierrez is a delegate from Montgomery County to the Maryland State House, she has brought some of these things forth. And she was at the event precisely to kind of truth squad Mr. Duncan and said something that I think most people felt.

MARTIN: Okay, this what she had to say. Here it is.

Ms. ANA SOL GUTIERREZ (Democrat Delegate, Maryland): I've heard his speech now four times and it's the same thing. I mean, it's very innovative but he doesn't get us. He doesn't get the issues of the Hispanic population. There is no targeting of the ELL.

SANCHEZ: And there when she says there's no targeting of the ELLs, she's talking about English language learners. The money that the federal government now has to address issues of immigrant kids, ELL, those kinds of things is still sitting there for the most part. Very few schools are seeing any results.

MARTIN: So, Claudio, where does this conversation go from here?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think the one big issue here that we haven't talked about is immigration. And immigration is inextricably tied to this question of education. The Latino community expects the Obama administration to tackle this head on and to put forth some of the - yes, most controversial proposals like amnesty and so forth. But many folks that I talked to in the Latino community point out that unless he addresses that first, this whole question of education really is going to go unaddressed because so much of the demographic growth, the explosive growth of the Latino population does come from immigration, not all clearly.

But unless that is resolved, there's going to be this feeling and there is this feeling that education issues are going to continue. I mean, there's a revolving door. For every one kid that you do succeed with, there's five more that are entering this country or born of Latino immigrant parents - many of them undocumented - that come to school again totally unprepared to learn. And there's this sense that the more we fix, the more we see the problem grow.

MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Claudio, thank you for joining us. Keep us posted.

SANCHEZ: Thank you. You're welcome.

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