Immigration and Education: Only the Beginning

By John Wahala on September 13, 2010

The Census Bureau finds that one of every four members of this year's kindergarten class is Hispanic. To put this number in context, Hispanics were less than five percent of all students in 1970. This unprecedented transformation is the result of our federal immigration program, which continues at record pace.

Quoted recently in USA Today, demographer Kenneth Johnson predicted that this change is "only the beginning," given that the number of Hispanic girls entering childbearing years is up more than 30 percent. Johnson went on to explain that this is a nationwide phenomenon as school districts everywhere are struggling to accommodate these students.

The most obvious challenge is the language divide – it is estimated that 16 percent of five-year-olds are Spanish speakers. Most teachers are simply not equipped to instruct these pupils, who struggle to communicate and remain isolated from their peers. One study found that it takes the average person five to seven years to achieve fluency in English. Another concluded that the average English learner in California had less than a 40 percent chance to be proficient after ten years of schooling in the U.S. This means many will reach graduation age lacking the ability to effectively read and write in English.

Lacking English proficiency is a serious impediment to making a suitable living and integrating into American life. And given the government’s sustained policy of mass immigration, these personal struggles will have a cumulative impact on the economy. If current trends continue, one education think tank projects that the skills and incomes of the U.S. workforce will decline over the next several years.

Even if we immediately regained control of our haphazard system and significantly reduced immigration, the challenge of fostering widespread success among Hispanic students remains. Two professors explain that the Latino education crisis goes far beyond the language divide and is serious enough to imperil our very democracy. They cite researchers who find that around 50 percent of Hispanic students do not graduate four years after entering high school.

These young people, most of whom are American citizens, will have a definitive role in shaping the next several decades. They are a permanent addition to the American story. While their progress should be a consideration for future immigration policy, how they fare is a separate issue and one of extreme importance.

Topics: Education