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Left Behind: Education gap for Latinos a daunting problem in state

By Aurelio Rojas
Bee Capitol Bureau
(Published Jan. 25, 2000)

SAN JOSE -- With a sixth-grade education and limited understanding of English, Gonzalo Macías has no illusions his life will get easier despite the trappings of wealth he sees around him in the Silicon Valley.

The Mexican immigrant lives with his wife and two children. He makes $300 a week as handyman at Sacred Heart Community Center. His wife earns about the same working in a city graffiti-abatement program. Even with side jobs Macías picks up, there's not much left after the family pays its share of the $1,150 rent and other expenses. Their one luxury: sending their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to a Catholic school.

"I tell my son, "We don't have money and we don't own a house,'" said Macías, 48. ""Your life doesn't have to be like this if you learn in school.'"

Raising education levels has been called the "greatest priority" facing Latinos by Henry Cisneros, former head of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nowhere is the challenge as daunting as in California, where Latinos will be the majority of the work force by 2025.

Latinos in the state have the highest high-school dropout rate (45 percent), lowest college graduation rate (8 percent) and, not surprisingly, the lowest median income ($14,560).

The dropout rates can be explained in part by immigration. But why do Asians, another group with large numbers of immigrants, do so much better in school? Andres Jimenez, director of the University of California Policy Research Center in Berkeley, said there's an important distinction.

"Asian adults generally come here with a higher level of literacy, which is why their children do better in school and attend college in greater numbers," said Jimenez, an immigration expert.

The Latino education gap in California is not new. Previous studies show the same was true as far back as the 1940s, Jimenez said.

"What it points to is the failure of schools to create opportunities," Jimenez said. "It's no secret most Latinos attend inferior schools."

Jimenez believes that with Latinos constituting 41 percent of the state's student population -- and projected to be more than half by 2005 -- the education gap demands aggressive short-term and long-term strategies.

"We're almost at a point where California needs to declare an education emergency," Jimenez said. "We have to start with educating Latino parents so that they can be advocates for their children."

Adult programs in community colleges and school districts, he said, should be coordinated. And the state should expand and improve its teacher force so that all students have a realistic chance of reaching learning standards.

David Hayes-Bautista, director of the UCLA Center For the Study of Latino Health, said California needs to invest in education the way it did in the 1950s to accommodate a previous wave of newcomers.

"They were predominantly non-Hispanic whites from other states, but there are similarities," Hayes-Bautista said of the previous new Californians. "Over 50 percent of adults had not graduated from high school and 25 percent lived in poverty.

"Fast-forward to the Latino immigrants of the 1990s and you have virtually identical figures. Except we're not building schools and colleges and providing the same quality of teachers."

The investment paid off before as California became a national leader in education. Today, test scores here rank below the national average, especially among Latinos, and there are indications the state is paying the price.

Part of the cost is a drag on the economy. The California Research Bureau estimates that if Latinos earned as much as other ethnic groups, $28 billion more would be circulating in the economy and $1.7 billion more would be paid in state income taxes.

Another consequence is a shortage of workers with the skills needed by industry.

In Silicon Valley, where the graduation rate for Latino students is no better than in the rest of the state despite the region's professed commitment to education, a shortage of skilled workers is threatening the growth of high-tech companies.

"We're seeing the potential future of California in the Silicon Valley," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at Claremont Colleges. "Companies are having to go overseas to get engineers."

But Lillian Tafoya, secretary of the California Latino School Members Association, is optimistic Latino academic achievement will improve as Latinos move into positions of power in education.

Tafoya said only 385 of the 5,000 elected school officials and those in leadership positions, including superintendents, are Latinos.

"As we grow in political power, we'll elect more education leaders who have a greater understanding of poverty and the hurdles we face," said Tafoya, a member of the Bakersfield City school board. "It's something we have to do if we're going to narrow the income gap."