Lawmakers approve Hispanic Education Act

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The proposal would establish a liaison within the PED who would focus on Hispanic students

By Susan M. Bryan

SANTA FE — Similar proposals aimed at closing an achievement gap for New Mexico Hispanic students, improving their high school graduation rates and getting more of them to college were approved Wednesday by state legislators.

The House passed the proposed Hispanic Education Act on a 44-25 vote. The proposal would establish a liaison within the Public Education Department who would focus on Hispanic students. It also would create an advisory council that would work with families and communities to close the gap.

The Public Education Department would also be required to submit an annual report on the statewide status of Hispanic education from preschool through high school.

The Senate approved a similar proposal 24-16. However, both chambers of the Legislature must pass the same version of a bill before it goes to the governor to be signed into law.

Gov. Bill Richardson and Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia have been pushing for a state Hispanic Education Act, which state officials say would be the first of its kind in the country.

In New Mexico, Hispanic students score lower in reading and math than their white and Asian counterparts. Hispanic students’ graduation rate is about 56 percent, compared to a 71 percent graduation rate for white students.

Nearly 56 percent of the students in New Mexico schools are Hispanic, and supporters of the legislation say the state has a responsibility to find a way to help the majority of its students.

“This bill is historic for the Hispanic community. It sends a message to the Hispanic people of this state: No longer will the education of their kids be second,” said Rep. Eleanor Chavez, D-Albuquerque.

Critics in both chambers questioned why the state should single out Hispanics rather than focusing on all ethnic or racial groups that need to improve student performance.

“It’s wrong for us to come out here and say, ‘We are going to save some of you but not all of you,’” said Senate President Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat.

Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said the Public Education Department is charged with educating all of New Mexico’s children. She expressed concern that New Mexico would be regressing to the divisions of the 1960s by passing an act relating to a specific ethnic group.

“We’re all Americans first, and I think it’s so important that we stop reinstalling all of these boundaries,” said Powdrell-Culbert, who is black. “What I think we’re doing is developing a whole new generation of racism.”

Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, said a more targeted approach is necessary in schools.

“One-size-fits-all is not getting the job done, and the achievement gap keeps growing,” said Nava, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

Garcia has said the proposal would allow her department to develop curricula based on Hispanic culture and language and boost parental and community involvement. She said she wants to be able to quantify the work to measure its impact on the achievement gap.

The department said establishing the liaison and the 23-member advisory council could be accomplished with existing resources. The council members would not be paid for their services.