Every year, Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated between September 15th and October 15th to recognize the accomplishments and contributions made by Hispanic Americans to the United States.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic community in the United States composes about 15 percent of the entire population, and about 23 percent live below the poverty rate.

When Americans initially hear the word “Hispanic,” most relate it with blue collar jobs, but many Hispanics have reached the heights of success.  Most recently, Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up in the projects of New York, overcame poverty, and educated herself, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Carlos M. Gutierrez immigrated to the United States, learned English from a hotel bell hop, worked his way up to become CEO of Kellogg’s and was appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce.  Roberto Crispulo Guizveta, who defected to the United States from Cuba with $40 and 100 shares of Coca-Cola to his name, ultimately became the CEO of Coca-Cola.  But what will the next generation of Hispanics bring?

Some of the statistics paint a discouraging picture: Of students entering college, only 7 percent are Hispanic, according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.  And fewer Hispanics are graduating from college. The Pew Hispanic Center found that 66 percent of Hispanics enter college immediately after completely high school compared to 71 percent of whites. However, by the age of 26, 18 percent of those Hispanics actually graduated from college compared to 38 percent of whites. One recent survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center stated that family obligations are the main reason why Hispanics do not continue with education in college or drop out of high school. 

It isn’t just Hispanics who are affected by lack of access to quality education in America:  it’s an issue that affects all ethnic and racial groups. 

Across the country, the public education system isn’t providing a quality education and preparing young students to go on to college or participate in the modern economy.  This is particularly true in low-income areas, where many Hispanics reside.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 86 percent of Hispanic eighth graders read below grade level. This number should alarm everyone who cares about our country’s future:  education is the building block for becoming a productive worker and active citizen.  And again this problem isn’t just among Hispanics or other minority groups, the NAEP study also stated that 62 percent of White non-Hispanic eighth grade students were reading below their grade level. 

The blame for this problem doesn’t rest on any one source.  Parents and students need to do their part and commit themselves to pursuing an education even when their schools aren’t up to par.  Unions that prevent bad teachers from being fired impede progress and deter learning.  Of course, the government which allows a shameful status quo to continue should also be held to account.  We can do better, and change should start today. 

Florida embraced numerous meaningful policy reforms, including, performance bonuses for teachers, school choice programs for failing schools, alternative teacher certification programs, an end to social promotion and others.  As education expert Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute reports, Florida’s efforts have paid off in terms of improving student outcomes:  fourth grade illiteracy has fallen by 32 percent in the past 10 years and students of all ethnicities are becoming better prepared for college in better schools with effective teachers. These reforms have gone a long way in closing the achievement gap between minority and other students.  In fact, Hispanic students in Florida are now out performing all students in at least 15 states on the national fourth grade reading tests.

Education reform is working, and will benefit the next generation of leaders. Instead of just celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with the usual words and gestures, policymakers and the public should commit themselves to making real change in our education system.  That’s the best way to ensure that we have many reasons to celebrate in the years to come.