The Nation’s Grade-School Population Has Changed, and It Speaks Spanish

Mirroring demographic trends, a new survey shows minorities—led by Latinos—will outnumber whites in public schools this fall.

(Photo: Bryan Peterson/Getty Images)

Aug 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a development that could mean more bilingual signs, textbooks, and teachers in classrooms—and perhaps pico de gallo and pupusas in the cafeterias. It’s also an unmistakable indication that demographic changes that the nation anticipated may have finally arrived.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that for the first time, minority children will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in U.S. schools this fall. At 49.8 percent, white children will remain the largest single ethnic or racial group enrolled in American public schools, according to a recent NCES survey. But blacks, Latinos, and Asians, combined with Native Americans and biracial children, make up 50.2 percent of students enrolled, thus putting white students in the minority.

The percentage of Latino and African American children will be greater than white children, largely driven by immigration from Mexico and Central America. At about 25 percent, Hispanic students are by far the largest minority group; African American students are about 15 percent of the total, and roughly 5 percent of minority students are Asian and Pacific Islanders.

The demographic shift will likely mean an increased demand for resources—including preschool programs to help prepare lower-income children for the classroom, a new generation of culturally sensitive teachers, and more educators who can teach English to nonnative speakers.

In an Austin, Texas, speech last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged that the face of public education will change dramatically this fall and insisted that the education of those students is vital to the nation’s progress.

“We face a seminal moment in public education: For the first time in our nation’s history, our department projects that America’s public schools will enroll a majority-minority student body,” he said. “Our collective future depends on meeting the needs of all students, and particularly those minority students, better.”

Yet the shift will almost certainly prompt anxious middle- and upper-class parents to vote with their children, so to speak—transferring them to schools they see as better options. That likely means a greater demand for public charter or magnet schools and a spike in enrollment at private schools.

“The stats don’t surprise me. This has been coming down the pike for quite a while,” said Dr. Susan Bowles Therriault, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research, an education-policy think tank. Nevertheless, “I’m not confident that the [education] input and policy are aligned. There will be different challenges and different needs” that still aren’t on the national education agenda.

The changing makeup of public schools reflects a change on the horizon for the nation as a whole. For years, the U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that the United States will become a majority-minority population by 2043, spurred by higher birth rates among Latinos than among African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites. California reached that milestone earlier this year.

At the same time, schools are becoming more polarized along racial and class lines as whites and African Americans of means opt out of rapidly diversifying public schools. The black and Latino kids left behind tend to be less affluent and less prepared for rigorous classwork. That can drag down standardized test scores and create the impression of a failing school—further triggering a “brain drain” that can be hard to reverse.

“I think that’s definitely going to happen,” Therriault said. “I’m already seeing it play out” in school districts that have had an influx of minority and Latino kids.

“Schools are struggling to balance high expectations and greater needs and demands for students that need help,” Therriault explained. As a result, she said, “states are really starting to look more closely at early education,” getting kids up to speed before they start school.

Then there are the grapples with social tensions that aren’t easily resolved. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reports that hostilities between blacks and Latinos in public schools nationwide are on the rise, while Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish public school administrators reached an agreement with the federal government to end an investigation into discrimination against English-language learners.

The best way to address these challenges, Therriault said, is to look at what works—schools that have successfully integrated Latino and other minority students—and incorporate those best practices into the national education curriculum.

Ultimately, though, “the best way for any traditional school district to deal with that is to provide the best education they can and have the best way to communicate that,” Therriault said.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.