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Education is the new brown currency

by Kathleen O. Vale
La Voz de Austin

COMMENTARY — I am a proud sixth-generation female member of a Mexican- American family whose roots begin in San Antonio, Texas, meander back to Rio Grande City, Texas (in Starr County, on the Mexican border), continue the trans-national stretch across the Gulf of Mexico to Tampico, Mexico, and ultimately reach all the way back to Gottenburg, Sweden two centuries ago.

Coming of age in San Antonio during the tumultuous social period of the 1960’s and 1970’s, my parents raised me and my brothers and sisters to believe America was the global leader of equal opportunity, a haven for immigrants from all nations, and a stepping stone for upward social mobility.

President Obama’s powerful statement underscores my belief that equalizing the public education system is a vital interest to our Latino communities, and to our city, state and country as a whole.

With a new school year beginning, my thoughts turn again to a standing passion of mine: the success of Latinos in public education through college.

I have lived and worked continually in Austin since 1984. I received my undergraduate degree from UT Austin. Both of my children were educated K-12th in AISD schools, including Kealing Middle School and LBJ/LASA High School, both in Austin. My son will graduate from Swarthmore College in May 2012 and my daughter begins her college journey this year as a UT Plan II freshman.

Next month, I start a year-long commitment with the Austin Independent School District participating in ‘Up-Close,” a roundtable of community members who will meet twice monthly to more fully understand the different elements, goals, issues, and challenges within our large, urban school district.

Even though my own children are out of AISD, I volunteered with this group because I am very concerned with the most current statistical data which conveys an alarming disparity in access, performance, retention and graduation rates between minority and non-minority students.

If we address this challenge to reform, strengthen and equalize public education for all of Austin’s youth, we have the opportunity to galvanize the city to protect equity and equality as core Austin values, while strengthening our economic competitiveness in the rapidly evolving marketplace.

The United States is the world’s only superpower, yet there are silent, dangerous fault lines in our national fabric. Only 48% of Hispanic Americans graduate high school, compared to the 75% graduation rate of Anglo Americans. These disparities have lifelong impact, relating directly to upward social mobility and a young person’s ability to achieve the “American Dream.”

Hispanic Americans with a high school diploma will earn an average annual salary of $22,000, but this will rise to $37,000 with a college degree.

Despite the economic disparities, only 13% of Hispanic Americans graduate college. The number of college-educated white Americans is 65%. A mighty wave of Latino youth is being rapidly and dangerously left behind, and it’s happening right here in Austin, Texas.

The loss is not only personal, but also collective, considering the lost opportunity of potential contributions to federal and state tax rolls, and our nation’s social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

With a very important presidential election looming large in the coming year, I encourage you to get involved and stay involved.

Please join me and the wider Austin Latino community in reasserting our fundamental goal to live in a city that embraces an initiative to prioritize the reinvention and revitalization of public education as an issue of vital interest and competitiveness.

We Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population; we account for more than a quarter of all new entrants into the labor force and based on the most recent Austin census data, Latinos comprise just over 35% of the Austin population.

I hope we can harness this population power to the educational advantage of our children, and be inspired by Cesar Chavez’ famous quote: “we don’t need perfect political systems, we need perfect participation.”

I believe education is our new currency.

But in today’s global economy, America sits complacently in 12th place of 36 developed nations in the percentage of young people with college degrees. If our might can win World Wars, if our tenacious pioneering spirit can tame geography west of the Mississippi River, if our ingenuity can construct iconic architectural feats such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoover Dam, if our advanced computing and technological products can dominate world markets, then surely we have the strength, capacity and heroic American aspiration to reinvent public education.

And there is no reason why it cannot take root here in Austin, Texas.

Proudly, within my own large multi-generational family, I have witnessed the transformative power the combination of a a quality K-12 public education, combined with a college education and fierce work ethic can have from one generation to the next.

There were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, midwives, teachers, ranchers who raised their families with grit and perseverance in the wild and harsh lands of south Texas in the first half of the 20th century.

Their life stories are my inspiration and keep reminding me today how the choices we make for our children in difficult times, and the resiliency with which we keep our dreams alive for them, can have lasting and a profoundly positive impact on families and communities.

My optimistic passion and conviction is for Austin Latinos to be in the national vanguard of this movement, alongside enthusiastic, educated leaders, parents, teachers, business owners, students, and activists who will come together to address this challenge.

I look forward to investing my skills, insight and intellectual confidence in the youth of our community, and I ask you to join me.

Kathleen Vale was born in Liverpool, England, and raised in San Antonio, Texas. She is the daughter of now deceased Texas State Senator and State Representative Bob Vale and Theresa Vale and is a 17 years state employee.

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