Schools Fail Latinos in Any Tongue

Education: The "Crisis" of too few Spanish-speaking teachers in L.A. is grounded in years of institutional neglect.

It’s hard to be sympathetic with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s expressed frustrations in coping with 170,000 limited- and non-English-speaking students (90% of whom are Latino). I cannot help asking, whose fault is it?

The crisis in our schools did not come about by osmosis; it was the result of demographic changes that happened openly, and it was predictable.

About a decade ago, Mexico’s economic slide and wars in Central America created a flood of immigrants here. Add to this surges in Asian and Middle Eastern immigration, and the result is overcrowded and chaotic inner-city schools staffed by overworked people who cannot communicate with the students.

In fairness to L.A. school administrators, some have lately seen the light and attempted to attract bilingual teachers by offering a $5,000 annual bonus. The district also has developed a well-defined master plan for bilingual education. This is a start. But there are still glaring contradictions. The irony of the district sending recruiters to Spain and Mexico to find qualified Spanish-speaking teachers is too much to take. Why, when the United States has a Latino population of more than 15 million, can’t we find Spanish-speakers at home?

One of the answers is that fewer Latinos are entering teaching. In 1977, nationwide 3,050 Latino college graduates received teaching certificates. Eight years later the number had declined to 2,533.

Where are the Latino high school and college graduates? Surely, not all of them are opening doors in business and the professions. Their absence in teaching, a field traditionally attractive to first- and second-generation immigrants, is a measure of how public education is failing Latinos.

The shortage of bilingual Spanish-speaking teachers and aides is just one of problems created by the district’s failure to motivate Latino students to complete their education.

There is obviously a link between the number of Latino teachers and the success rate of teaching strategies such as bilingual education. Close to 60% of the students in the L.A. district are Latino, while just over 10% of its teachers are (about 6% are of Mexican or Central American extraction).

Latinos also suffer from their numerically small part in the teacher community, which because of its massive size, greatly influences the district’s ideology and political makeup.

And, of course, the dearth of Latino teachers deprives all students of Latino role models, leaving them to the influence of TV stereotypes.

In a wider sense, the lack of representation cheats the Latino community intellectually, allowing English-only kooks like LEAD (the Learning English Advocacy Drive) to get away with idiotic questions: “The Irish, the Jews, the Italians and the Poles made it, what’s wrong with you Mexicans?” Well, nothing is wrong with us Mexicans. The truth is that the public schools have not treated all groups equally. They slighted the first generations of European ethnics, only blessing their children or grandchildren, the so-called baby-boomers, with mass infusions of federal aid to education during and after World War II.

David Hayes-Bautista of UCLA, in his book “The Burden of Support — Young Latinos in an Aging Society,” underscores this historical fact, writing: “In 1940 the average Anglo had only 9.8 years of schooling. Comparatively few Californians had graduated from high school, and college was but a distant dream for most.” At the time, Latinos averaged 5.6 years of schooling. Forty years later, the Anglo average had climbed to 12.9 years, the Latino to 9 years. The number of Anglo college graduates had tripled, from 7.2% to 21.2%; the Latino figure more than tripled, but from a meager 1.6% to 5.4%. In fact, if it had not been for mass federal and state aid, supplemented by the G.I. Bill, the descendants of the European ethnics would still be in factories (if they hadn’t shut down or moved abroad).

California, up into the 1960s, was a leader in per-capita expenditures on education. But as the Latino and minority populations grew, and as the baby boomers got older, California’s commitment to excellence waned. In 1971, California was 19th in state spending; 12 years later it ranked 45th. Now, almost a decade of Gov. George Deukmejian’s stewardship has pushed California into a runoff for last place, making sure that Latinos won’t get the chance that the children of the Irish, Italians, Jews and Poles finally did.

It is time to set the record straight: The great majority of Latinos in this country have never set foot in a bilingual classroom. What has failed them is good old American education; bilingual education had nothing to do with it. What is important about bilingual education is that it is an index of the education Establishment’s commitment to the education of Latinos. Its demise could signal that American society has finally learned to live with and not apologize for a permanent underclass.

Rodolfo F. Acuna is a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge.

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