Longform

SEPARATE BUT MAS QUE IGUAL

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Many of today's dropouts, in South Phoenix and other Hispanic communities, are the children of dropouts. And their children will be, too, says Ruiz, unless the cycle is broken now. Historically, it is not until the third generation of U.S. residence that someone from an immigrant family goes on to college. But Arizona's burgeoning Hispanic population--nearly half of which isn't graduating from high school--can expect an even longer wait. "There are a number of generations that have now passed. Kids came out of the 1960s and 1970s who fell into the spiral of going down, not up," says Ruiz. "There have been two decades of major deterioration of family and individuals in our communities. Now we are taking over. We will do whatever we can do to secure our children's future. Charter schools just happen to be the vehicle for that."

It's a new twist on an old issue. In 1954, the fight was about allowing minorities in the public school system. The claim was that separate schools for minorities would never be equal to those serving the white majority.

Today, some Hispanic activists feel that charter schools can give their children something better than public schools--integrated or segregated--ever will.

"I don't think there should ever be a system in place that could refuse somebody because of race or religion or ethnicity," says Espinoza. "But I would fight [desegregation]," he adds. "You can't prove to us that it's worked, because it hasn't. And what was the intent of the law? That children be educated. Why force something on our community that hasn't worked?"
Ironically, Hispanics could have taken control of a good number of Arizona school districts already. The state's education system is built around the concept of local control, and most power in that system lies with local school boards whose members are elected. Hispanics make up a majority in many districts.

But their numbers never translated into muscle at the polls or in the schools.
School-board races traditionally bring in the lowest voter turnouts of any type of election. And regardless of how vocal their leaders are, Hispanic communities, especially poor Hispanic communities, vote in even lower numbers, on a percentage basis, than other ethnic groups. The reasons are manifold. Inability to speak English. Unfamiliarity with the school system. Intimidation by the school and election bureaucracy.

Sometimes, it is a matter of survival. Poorer Hispanics may be working multiple jobs or caring for housefuls of children. Transportation is always a problem for the poor.

Recent immigrants are even further away from the action. Parental involvement is not customary in Mexico, where parents generally relinquish authority over education to the schools. Some of the newly arrived also fear they might jeopardize precious citizenship by making waves in the school system.

It is entirely unclear whether charter schools will, in and of themselves, make more Hispanic parents partners in the educational process. While Hispanics generally agree that there's a problem in the public school system, they don't necessarily agree on an answer.

Some are dead-set on change within the existing school system. Others see little hope in continuing that fight.

But when Hispanic charter schools are formed early next year, they probably will encounter many of the problems that the public school system has so far failed to address in minority communities.

The Arizona Hispanic Community Forum earlier this year made political history when it joined Governor Fife Symington in support of a traditionally Republican proposal--giving parents vouchers that could pay for private school for their children. After a bitter legislative battle, the voucher effort failed, but it was prompted by the same concern that is driving Hispanics to create charter schools.

The public school system is failing to properly educate overwhelming numbers of kids.

But charter schools are no panacea for Arizona's educational problems.
First, to have any chance of surviving a legal challenge based on the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation rulings, charter schools almost certainly will have to be open to all comers. Such a challenge could come from many quarters; school districts that lose students (and the state funding associated with them) to charter schools seem likely to sue.

But trying to be all things to all kids--including non-Hispanic kids--is likely to cause many of the same problems the mainstream school system already faces.

Charter schools, by law, will receive the same per-child funding as other public schools. Most minority communities are relatively poor. The per-child funding--which is directly related to the value of taxable property in a school district--has, therefore, been grossly inadequate. In fact, this structural underfunding has been a major reason that public schools haven't been able to provide for the needs of minority children.

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