Equity & Diversity

U.S. Census Underscores Diversity

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 21, 2001 8 min read
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Dramatic demographic shifts, especially a marked growth in the Hispanic population, could help broaden the view of diversity in America’s classrooms beyond black and white and heighten interest in minority students’ needs, educators and national experts said in reacting to the release of new U. S. Census data.

The changing complexion of the nation’s students isn’t a new phenomenon. Still, some believe the 2000 Census figures may galvanize policymakers, taxpayers, and school leaders and translate into additional resources, improved teacher training, more culturally inclusive curricula, and wider political representation.

“We really have had a biracial mindset in dealing with minority education issues,” said Harry P. Pachon, the president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont, Calif.-based center on Latino issues. “This is the new reality. We need to shift to a multiethnic focus in education.”

But Jorge E. Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington research and advocacy group that favors immersion methods of teaching English, said that as the cultural shift continues in American schools, assimilation becomes vital—not multicultural education.

“It’s more important to stress the things that unite us rather than divide us,” he said.

Hispanics and African-Americans are now virtually equal in number, according to the 2000 Census figures released last week. The number of Americans of Hispanic origin jumped by 58 percent over the past decade, to 12.5 percent of the total population. African-Americans, including those who identified themselves as members of more than one race, climbed to 12.9 percent of the total, an increase of about 16 percent. Asian-Americans have almost doubled their presence since 1990, to 4.2 percent of the total population.

Although figures for school-age children won’t be available until later this year, public schools will likely see comparable or higher increases in the numbers of minority students, said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., and the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Mr. Frey, though, noted that even while traditionally homogeneous states like Iowa are seeing significant changes in their racial demographics, many states still have a predominantly white population. He added: “No place in American looks like the national profile.”

More Chairs at the Table

From a political standpoint, the 2000 Census figures could signal a power shift, said Margaret C. Simms, the vice president of research for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on black issues. Even in some predominantly minority school districts, Ms. Simms said, control remains in the hands of white politicians. But because the school board is often where political careers begin, she pointed out, it could prove to be an avenue for more minority participation in government as student enrollments become more diverse.

Ms. Simms acknowledged that the quest for political representation could cause conflicts. In Houston, for example, where Hispanic community leaders lobbied strongly for a Latino superintendent in 1994, they were angered when they were left out of the selection process. The board eventually appointed Rod Paige, an African-American, who now is the U.S. secretary of education.

For states facing a multicultural expansion, learning how to share power can be a challenge, said Edwina M. Lee, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. The Hispanic population in her state has grown by more than 50 percent over the past decade, and 140 languages are spoken in New Jersey classrooms.

“This may have been easier when all you wanted was one more chair [for African-Americans] at the table,” Ms. Lee said. “Now, you have to pull more chairs up to the table to include varying colors and languages that surround the state.”

On a national level, Lois Harrison-Jones, the president of the Washington-based National Alliance of Black School Educators, said she hopes the 2000 Census won’t pit racial and ethnic groups against each other for resources.

Representatives from national civil rights groups representing blacks and Hispanics said last week that they believe their long history of cooperation will avert any possible tension.

Hilary O. Shelton, the director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was more concerned that the federal funds allocated for programs that serve minorities wouldn’t increase to accommodate the fast-paced growth in the Hispanic community, especially in light of President Bush’s plan for a $1.6 trillion tax cut.

“The piece of the pie relegated to African-Americans and Hispanics has to be re-cut,” he said.

As government spending moves away from targeted funding for certain groups of students toward broader categories or block grants, Ms. Simms said, districts may find they have fewer dollars for difficult-to-serve children.

Raul Gonzalez, an education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington, said the $150 million federal Emergency Immigrant Education Act needed to be doubled to help districts cope with the influx of immigrants on their campuses. Approximately one in five children now lives in a household headed by an immigrant.

But Ms. Harrison-Jones, who is a former Boston superintendent of schools, said it’s unfair to conclude immediately that additional minority students means spending more money. Often, she said, it requires reallocating funds toward programs to meet the needs of a particular population and to prepare teachers more appropriately. “More money is usually spent on nonminorities anyway,” she added. “Just be more equitable in the allocation of funds for all children.”

Still, as the push for tougher academic standards for students and greater accountability for educators gains momentum, Hugh B. Price, the president and chief executive officer of the New York City-based National Urban League, said minority students continue to be left out of the education loop. “You can’t just proclaim that they meet higher standards and not invest in education,” he warned.

A Question of Will

African- Americans and Hispanics share common concerns about their children’s education, said Mr. Gonzalez of the National Council of La Raza, although, when it comes to education policy, language seems to dominate Hispanic issues.

Black and Hispanic students tend to have the poorest test scores, typically have less access to Advanced Placement courses, and are more likely to drop out of school than other students, he said. They also are more likely to attend schools identified by their states or districts as low-performing, he added.

“In large part, the public schools have not done a good job educating Hispanic and African-American kids,” Mr. Gonzalez said, adding that he’s hopeful improvements will be made with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, pending before Congress.

“At this point, it’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s political will.”

But to Mr. Pachon of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, English-language instruction should set Hispanic children’s needs apart from those of their African-American classmates. He said the language barrier propels the high Hispanic dropout rate, along with other educational challenges.

In addition, historical differences between Hispanics and African-Americans continue to condition their relations with non-Hispanic whites, said David J. Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Mr. Armor said slavery and racial segregation have been driving forces in African-Americans’ pursuit of an equal and adequate education. Unlike their black counterparts, he said, Hispanic leaders generally have not pushed for school desegregation, focusing instead on language barriers and a lack of resources.

“It’s not that there’s not discrimination and other problems facing Hispanics,” Mr. Armor said. “They don’t have the unique history of slavery and suppression black people have had.”

Max Niedzwiecki, the director of programs and resource development for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, said he hopes the 2000 Census will create a more nuanced and informed view of race and ethnicity. Because Americans of Southeast Asian origin—Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese—typically are included in the catchall Asian racial category, Southeast Asian students often fall victim to stereotypes about Asian-Americans, he said.

"[Many people] believe Asian- Americans are highly educated, overrepresented in higher education, and that the problem is solved,” he said. “That’s not true with Southeast Asian-American education.”

Along with language obstacles, he said, some have been traumatized by their refugee experiences. “It’s a challenge to acknowledge the complexity [of race] and move forward,” he argued.

In the classroom, teachers need to build a greater understanding of students’ origins to encourage academic success, said Jill Moss Greenberg, the executive director of the National Association of Multicultural Education, a nonprofit membership organization based in Washington.

“Multicultural education is not just a human-relations activity—people getting along together,” Ms. Greenberg said. “It’s essential to providing a good education.”

Mr. Amselle of the Center for Equal Opportunity, however, said it’s not productive to spend time teaching students about diverse cultures when they should be focused on the basics.

While the new Census numbers may heighten Americans’ awareness of the country’s burgeoning cultural diversity, states such as California have already recognized the dramatic racial and ethnic shifts within their borders. Only about 10 percent of the 723,000-student Los Angeles district, the nation’s second-largest school system, is made up of white, non-Hispanic students.

“The cities of California are the new Ellis Islands of the U.S.,” said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members belong to both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as U.S. Census Underscores Diversity

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