President Obama will visit a multicultural school in Washington Monday to discuss Hispanics and education, just a few days after the Census Bureau revealed that Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth over the last 10 years.
The town hall-style meeting demonstrates the White House’s effort to meld Hispanic issues with Obama’s broader domestic policy agenda, which is heavily focused on education. Hispanics represent the largest minority in the K-12 schools (at around 22 percent), with black students a close second.
Those Hispanic students can’t vote, but their parents will be a key component of Obama’s reelection.
The White House is hoping to engage Hispanics in education issues writ large, broadening the topic beyond problems unique to their community, such as English-language classes or migrant students. “For the biggest chunk of the 12 million Latino kids in the public [school] system, this is about an opportunity gap,” said Juan Sepúlveda, who heads the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
It’s true that smaller segments of the Hispanic population need special help learning English or dealing with a migrant farm work situation, Sepúlveda said. But a much larger group of Hispanic students suffer from the same problems of their poorer white or black counterparts—they are in failing schools. (It’s worth noting that black and disadvantaged students have logged the most gains in math and reading over the last 20 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For Hispanics, the gains are not nearly as significant, which is why Obama has made them a priority.)
That’s where Education Secretary Arne Duncan enters the conversation. Duncan is leading Obama’s charge to overhaul the nation’s K-12 education system, stating that American students of all races are falling behind. Duncan also is the main point person defending the White House’s requested budget increase for education, a bold departure from the administration’s belt-tightening mantra. Duncan offers the same medicine to help Hispanic students as he does for the entire nation—more investment in early childhood education, focus on disadvantaged communities, and “unprecedented increases in Pell Grants.”
It’s not hard to see why Obama has dispatched Duncan for the task of trumpeting his primary domestic policy priority. No matter what happens, the effervescent Duncan can offer up White House vision for the future, a picture that can easily translate to the campaign trail. “These are basically very tough times across the country, but what I always said is child has one chance to get an education. We can’t wait for that chance to drive reform,” Duncan said in advance of Monday’s event.
The White House has set a goal for a rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law before the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Even if the bill isn’t completed by August, however, Obama will have a solid record of championing education—a popular issue with voters—heading into the election. It’s a win-win strategy on its own, but it could be win-win-win if Obama can pull Hispanics into the discussion.
Obama will take questions Monday from some 600 students, teachers, and parents at Bell Multicultural High School. The town hall then will be broadcast in the evening by Univision, the Spanish language television network. The event is an outgrowth of a partnership between the administration and Univision on Hispanics and education. The three-year project focuses on making sure Hispanic students have a way to go to college and making sure parents are involved in their education.
This article appears in the March 28, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.