Labor Secretary Speaks to Latino Education Issues

By Mary Ellen Flannery

During a speech at NEA headquarters on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis called on educators to encourage Latino and other students of color to attend college, saying, “My message to you is, we need to work together to empower our young people to have hope.”

At the same time, she called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits for the 2.1 million unemployed people whose benefits will run out at the end of November, and also urged Senators to immediately pass the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), which would create a route to legal residency for undocumented students who attend college or join the military.

The Act, which also has NEA’s strong support, will be brought to the Senate for a vote later this month, Majority Leader Harry Reid promised this week. To urge a positive vote, go here.

Solis, a former elected trustee at Rio Hondo Community College in California, addressed the United States Council on Latino Affairs at a two-day joint summit, co-sponsored by NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, which focused on identifying the best practices, policies and programs to boost the academic achievement of Latino students.

“As enrollment of Latino students in our schools increases, we must find ways to better engage and support those young people who are in school today, and who will determine the future of our nation tomorrow,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the group.

That future needs to include more Hispanic college graduates, Solis said. “A good solid education…is still, to me, the most important thing we can give our children in our country.”

But recent research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that Latino students are much less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees – even though they want to. While 89 percent of Latino students say they know a college education is important to be successful in life, just 48 percent say they actually see that for themselves. The biggest obstacle is money. Nearly three-quarters who cut short their education said they did it to get a job and support their families.

Solis pointed to recent actions by the federal government that should help. For one thing, the move to direct lending by the government to students should eliminate costly middle-man fees. For another, last year the federal government gave out $28.2 billion in Pell Grants, almost $10 billion than the year before, and much of it to minority or non-traditional students. But, at the same time, tuition increases have been common.

“Financial aid is not enough. People can’t just afford to go to college. It is hard. It is costly,” Solis said.

But Solis’ own personal story shows that just one teacher can change the direction of a poor student’s life. For the Labor Secretary, whose parents were Spanish-speaking immigrants, it was “Mr. Sanchez,” a teacher who encouraged her to consider college and told her how to navigate the system of tests and applications and financial aid. But, at the same time, another college counselor told Solis and her mother: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Solis, but Hilda is not college material.”

Even today, Solis gets angry thinking about it.

So many parents don’t have the language to navigate the school system and their children don’t have the experience, Solis told educators. “Like many of you in the room, we were not always afforded the opportunity to see a better vision for ourselves… how do you make those strides? How do you do it when you don’t speak the dominant language?”

“Young people need to be inspired and see that there are opportunities. They too can realize their dreams and come to positions of authority and responsibility.”