As newly released census figures show, Utah is changing. Fully 10 percent of the state now is made up of ethnic minorities, and the percentages are much higher in certain places, such as Salt Lake City.

This is a welcome change. People of diverse cultures enrich society at-large and broaden the perspectives and understandings of everyone.

Utah’s changing demographics also adds to the challenges faced by government, community groups and public educators. For example, the number of people who claim Hispanic origin jumped an incredible 138 percent between 1990 and 2000. Many of them came to this state speaking little English,
their greatest asset being a willingness to work hard and to seek their own opportunities. At the same time, language barriers present new challenges to the state’s schools.

Faced with this, it is important for Utahns to learn from others. California recently discovered, for instance, that it is better to teach non-English speaking children in English than to attempt to teach them in their native tongues and gradually transition them. This came after voters there passed Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education. A subsequent report by the New York Times found that scores rose dramatically in all subjects among children who spoke little English in California.

This is not to belittle the challenge of teaching a child who speaks no English. That certainly requires skill and dedication. It is to say,
however, that Utah’s educators ought to wisely pursue methods that already have been proved successful elsewhere.

Utahns also ought to ensure that all of the state’s voices are represented in the political process. Care should be taken to give all people an opportunity to register to vote. The Legislature ought not attempt to redraw districts in such a way that they divide natural communities and prevent ethnic groups from electing one of their own. Utah’s urban areas do not have ethnic concentrations as large as those in many other large U.S. cities. But as the state’s minority population continues to grow, it ought to be natural for faces of different colors to find their way more frequently into political offices ranging from school boards and city councils to the Legislature.

The census also showed that the Wasatch Front isn’t the state’s only magnet for newcomers. Southern Utah, particularly around St. George, is growing at a rate that will require it to have greater representation at the state Capitol. That will change the dynamics of many debates over the appropriation of tax dollars, and it may pose difficulties for people along the Wasatch Front, who are used to commanding most of the attention in Utah.

None of these challenges should be perceived negatively. Each will require the need for sound public policy and fair-minded leadership. Growth can be difficult, and Utah’s growth rate was the fourth highest in the nation during the last decade.

All in all, however, the benefits that will come to Utah from these changes far outweigh any of the problems.

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