When I arrived in Madison in 1985 with my wife and three small kids, it seemed like there were very few Latinos in the community. At the time, Latinos represented about 1 percent of Madison’s population. Indeed, I remember that to find a store that sold carnitas, a favorite traditional food that we ate at home in Mexico on Sundays, we had to travel to Milwaukee, or hope that the owners of the only Mexican food store in town (located on Madison’s east side near Fair Oaks Avenue) had brought some from Chicago.
Most Latinos at that time arrived at migrant camps in Wisconsin during the summer to work on farms or in processing plants. The educational needs of their children were met through the federal Migrant Education Program. Today, there are close to 350,000 Latino residents in Wisconsin, and we make up about 8 percent of Madison’s population and 6.1 percent of Dane County’s population. Many who work within the Latino community agree that this statistic is underestimated in the U.S. Census. Latino kids are now the largest minority enrolled in Wisconsin schools, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, and they account for more than 20 percent of all students enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District—almost double that of 10 years ago. And this growth has occurred at a time when most other racial and ethnic groups are declining in numbers.
However, as demographics have shifted, significant educational challenges for Latino families remain. Even though graduation rates have been increasing, only 68 percent of students in the Madison school district graduated in four years in the 2014-15 school year. Part of the issue is pedagogical, as a significant number of school districts in Wisconsin do not provide Latino children with the best available programs and resources that they need. For example, proven programs like dual language immersion, or DLI, are essential for the large percentage of our kids who are English language learners, known as ELLs; yet these types of programs, although growing in number, are not widely available in the state. At times, it seems like our Latino children are an afterthought. But this should not be the norm. It is a matter of equity. Every district should give each student what he or she needs to succeed. Some districts have been at the forefront of these efforts, like MMSD, which launched Nuestro Mundo Community School 10 years ago and expanded available DLI programs for all families in the district this year.
The situation for Latino adults is more dire. About 31 percent of Latino adults (25 and older) and a whopping 62 percent of Latinas in Dane County do not have a high school diploma. In a state with an increasing need for workers with the kind of education and skills that only a postsecondary education can provide, this could be disastrous economically.
These challenges are magnified by the small college completion rate of Latinos in Wisconsin (17 percent) and by policies that effectively ban some of the best and brightest of our youth, in particular our undocumented students, from being able to afford a college education. Our UW System considers undocumented students “international students” for tuition purposes; that is, they must pay three times what resident students pay, without the ability to access any federal or state financial aid. This is despite that, in most cases, they and their parents have been residing in our state most of their lives and paying taxes that support our public education system. More than 65,000 undocumented students graduate every year in the U.S. and are now at risk of not reaching their potential because of absurd policies. And while 17 states have passed legislation to consider these students as residents for tuition purposes, Wisconsin is the only state that once gave them that opportunity and then took it away by repealing an existing resident tuition law.
Last year, to underscore the many needs in our Latino community, the Latino Consortium for Action (of which the Latino Education Council is a member) and United Way of Dane County released the report “Cuéntame Más: Dane County Community Call to Action.” In this report, increased focus and deliberate efforts in the following areas are sought:
- Expansion of multigenerational educational programs and opportunities for Latino youth and families.
- Increased access in K-12 for Latino and ELL students to high-quality programs like DLI.
- Increased resources for high school to college pipeline programming, and increased access for Latino students to public universities.
- Increased scholarships for Latino students and resident tuition for undocumented students.
- Unrelenting support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Much has changed in the 32 years I have lived in Madison, but the stubborn opportunity gaps that we have seen historically in our underrepresented communities persist. It’s time to take action. The social and economic future of Wisconsin may depend on our commitment and success in achieving these educational goals.
Salvador L. Carranza is president of the Latino Education Council and a senior academic planner at the UW System. He received his Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy analysis from UW–Madison.