Hispanic Students Declared Losers in Race to the Top Competition

by James J. Lyons, Esq.

Hispanic Link News Service

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as the stimulus program, Congress included $5 billion for education incentive grants to states.  A fundamental goal of the education stimulus money, indeed the thrust of virtually all federal education laws since enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, was to narrow racial and socio-economic gaps in student achievement

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former professional basketball player, set up a sports-like competition for the stimulus funds.  The rules Duncan developed for his “Race to the Top” competition were complex and educationally controversial.

More controversial still are the race results.  Duncan’s hand-picked reviewers declared 11 states (DE, FL, GA, HI, MD, MA, NY, NC, OH, RI, TN) and the District of Columbia to be the winners  Except for Hawaii, no state admitted to the Union after 1845 won.  And not counting Ohio and Tennessee, all of the winning states hug the Atlantic seaboard, except, of course, Hawaii.  Only one quarter of all public school students live in a “winning” state; three out of four students will not benefit from the stimulus incentive money.

Duncan’s supporters have credited “Race to the Top” with starting a “tidal wave” of educational reform, a claim challenged by many knowledgeable school-reform observers.  The political fallout from the competition may prove to be the real “tidal wave,” drowning Democratic candidates in tight races in the Midwest and West.  Iowa, which propelled Senator Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and switched from a “red” state to “blue” in the general election, didn’t get a dime.  Neither did Colorado, Nevada, or New Mexico, which voted for Bush in 2004 but for Obama in 2008.  California supported Obama, but its schools, which enroll one-tenth of the nation’s students, didn’t win a stimulus prize.

From the standpoint of narrowing the racial and economic achievement gaps which threaten the nation’s economic, social, and moral well-being, the “Race to the Top” ended like a catastrophic multi-car collision, with Hispanic students sustaining the most casualties.

Native American students, by every measure, are the most educationally needy group in the country.  And dating back to the infamous federally created Indian Boarding Schools, they constitute the most poorly-served student population in the U.S.  9 of every 10 American Indian students live in states which lost in the race for federal aid as their ancestors either died in or fled the Eastern states which won the prize.  

Black students fared better.  While 17% of U.S. public school students are classified as Black, non-Hispanic, they make up 39% of the total public school enrollment in the District of Columbia and 11 winning states.  For Black students, the competition, at least on paper, worked.

Hispanics students constitute the largest minority group in U.S. public schools. With 10.25 million Hispanic students enrolled in K-12 programs, they comprise approximately 20% of all public school students.  In terms of need, Hispanic students are close on the educational heels of Native American students, seemingly stuck at the bottom of our nation’s system of public education.

A majority of Hispanic students live in Western states which were part of Mexico until 1848.  The states with the highest proportional Hispanic enrollment are NM (54 %), CA (47%), TX (44%), AZ (40%), and NV (36%).  These states, which enroll more than 60% of all Hispanic students in the U.S., won’t receive a penny of the multi-billion-dollar race prize.

And so, Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly supported Barak Obama have to swallow another bitter pill.  Candidate Obama promised to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform in his first year in office.  What came of that promise?     ¡Nada! Nothing! 

The President’s promise of better schools for their children seems equally empty to many Hispanic parents now that the winners of Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top have been announced.  Hispanic students lost the race, and many Hispanic voters are losing the Audacity of Hope.

James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, Va.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.  His email is jamesjohnlyons@comast.net

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