U.S. schools fail immigrant children, but school choice may be one solution


Anthony J. Colón, a strong proponent of "school of choice," says that
only by giving parents the ability to choose schools will their children
be secured a future and not sentenced to a life of failures.
In a conversation with Watt Way magazine reporter Natasha Garyali, education analyst Anthony J. Colón says that he believes a parent’s ability to select a school is the only way to ensure that their children are not sentenced to a life of failure.

“We have a system in place across the country that is antiquated,” says Colón, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options in Washington, D.C. The U.S. school system, he says, “is based on John Dewey’s system of education, which is over 100 years old,” This, he says, poses a problem for all kinds of children, especially for low income immigrant children because the American public school experience is largely constructed for English-speaking students and is not prepared to handle children whose language is something other than English. Colón, one of the most widely-recognized leaders in the ‘school choice’ and education reform movements, also firmly believes that the current economic downturn will not affect the immigrants’ stay in the country, as even the worst conditions in this country is no comparison to some of the conditions they confront in their home countries.

The following is an edited transcript.

Natasha Garyali: What are the challenges that are faced by immigrant children and their families today? Have the challenges changed over the time or continued to remain the same?

Anthony Colón: It depends on if you are a documented immigrant or an undocumented immigrant because the challenges are completely different. If you are documented, and you are in this country illegally, the challenge is that the schools are not prepared to handle children whose language is something other than English. Our schools are set up in general across this country to deal with the English speaking population. So, that is your first major challenge. Secondly, it is not a very parent friendly system. There are lot of assumptions made about parents and their level of education. So, parents have a very difficult time communicating with the teachers or often feel intimidated by the system. The problem becomes compounded if you are here illegally or undocumented because then in addition to the usual problems the parent then are even afraid to go up to the school and advocate for their children. If they come into our urban cities where many of the schools are failing schools you meet with the third challenge. Children belonging to the lower income go to schools which are in communities where the schools are under resourced and underserved. We use a term in education to describe this—it is called ‘life sentence.’ Children in this system are sentenced to a life of failures.

NG: Immigration creates tension and ambivalence, particularly in a moment of economic crisis. Do you feel the negativity against the immigrants, specifically the Hispanics, will increase given the present circumstances?

AC: I am not sure if it is going to increase or not but one thing I am sure about is that it will not disappear. You tend to blame failing economies, high crime, or whatever the ailment for the day is for the society on those you know very little about, particularly those immigrants who come from Latin American countries like Mexico, Central America, South America, because there is a terrible view of these countries that what we are getting are the lowest of the population - the poor. I think we as a society have built-in prejudices against color, against language, against things that we are not familiar with and that’s part of who we are and then again unless we make a huge attempt in this country to become more understanding and more competent about other people I don’t think anything is going to change much.

NG: Are the opportunities in the U.S. drying up for immigrants? Do you foresee a decline in immigration to the U.S.?

AC: No, I don’t think so at all. If you have visited some of these countries where people come from, where the poverty is dire and severe, where people live in huts and where the living conditions are horrendous, where they sell their children into prostitution to eat, I mean the worst conditions in this country are no comparison to some of the conditions in the other countries. I don’t see people saying that, ‘We don’t have many opportunities in America so let’s go back to Mexico, Honduras.’ I think the immigrants see their plight as better off. When I was working in California, families with eight people would live in one room and they were content to be able to live there in that one room rather than go back to a country where there was absolutely no possibility of an opportunity at all. None.

NG: What do you think about investing in an immigrant child’s education? Do you think there will be more of a willingness to do this in the future? Will the next generation of immigrant students receive priority from future politicians?

AC: It depends on who is in power, where we put our emphasis. I think there are people in this country who feel strongly that we should not invest in illegals or in other people because we have our own issues, problems, that we should be isolationist… I think there is a part of part this country who feels like that and I think it is fueled by self serving politicians. But I also think there is also another segment of society who feel that we are blessed with what we have and we should share with others and particularly children. That we should be helping countries like Somalia and Rwanda and places where there has been this kind of genocide and where the children are the sufferers. People don’t want any more war like in Iraq. I think people just don’t want to do that and spend $80 billion a year on that when our economy is this bad, but when you talk about children people will continue to invest them.

NG: How would you suggest school segregation should be mitigated so that Hispanic children have access to better schools which will ideally allow them to perform at higher academic levels?

AC: I am a very strong proponent of “school of choice,” which is a parent’s ability to choose the schools that they send their children to rather than be assigned because of their geographical area. I support this choice and passing legislation across the country and in states that will allow the people to choose the school they want to go to at governments’ expense. This kind of parental choice, which are called vouchers and tax credits, are not available to the parents for most part. If you live in Washington D.C and you live on K Street South East and the school in that community is a failing school that’s where you send your kid there you don’t have a choice. You can say, ‘Well I don’t want to send my kid here because it is a failing school instead I want to send my school four blocks away to St. Raymond’s.’ You can’t do that because Raymond’s has tuition and if you can’t pay because you are a poor person then you can’t send them there. I believe that parents should be able to say that I am not sending my kid to a public school because things don’t work there. On the other hand, what I don’t want is to privatize all the education. We should try to fix the public school system first.

NG: Is such a freedom of choice possible?

AC: Right now it is an uphill battle, but I think it is possible. I should be able to go there (St. Raymond’s), my class, caste and economic condition should not prevent me from going there if my kids meet the qualification for going to that school.

NG: What role can teachers play in the education of the immigrant children in particular and the school system in general?

AC: Teachers are the key to good education for children. If you have quality of teachers, who are teaching in there competency areas, they are going to make the difference. However, if they aren’t, then you get rid of them. Unfortunately, we have a system of tenure that doesn’t allow that. It is the only industry in the world where even if you don’t produce they keep you on and pay you a salary, so, that has to change. The other thing is that the primary goal of education is to educate the children. I think that we need to work with teachers, we need to provide with them with professional development, pay them more money, but at the same time we need to hold them accountable. If the kids are not passing, there is problem with the teachers.

NG: Do you see English as a tool for assimilation for immigrant children? Will learning one language come at the cost of other?

AC: I am a very strong proponent of English education. Everyone in this country needs to be fluent in English. I also believe that bilingual education if done correctly works for children because not only will you have English proficient children you will have bilingual proficient children. What a great thing for our country if every child in this country was proficient in two languages. I think it is critical that we look at the idea of language not as a deficit but something that riches us.

(Colón has worked for more than 15 years to improve special education services in public schools in Bronx, N.Y. He served for six years as a vice president of the Center for Community Educational Excellence at the National Council of La Raza. He can be contacted at .)