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Education top concern of Hoosier Hispanics

A 2012 study released by the Pew Research Hispanic Center noted that despite a continual onslaught of reports to the contrary, Hispanics continue to express a deeper concern for a variety of issues related to education and the overall state of the economy than they do about immigration matters.

The report, issued last August, reinforced a study conducted in 2008 that yielded similar results. This latest iteration stressed that “education, jobs and the economy and health care are the top issues for Hispanic registered voters.”

These results, though not shocking to people who understand the complexities and heterogeneity of America’s Hispanic community, undoubtedly surprised many “experts” who continually use immigration-related topics as wedge issues for political advancement and manipulation.

This approach belittles the progress made by Hispanics across the United States and is, quite frankly, an insulting and transparent political ploy that does little to move the needle on some of our community’s most pressing challenges. Moreover, it is simply not in line with the set of priorities to which most Hispanics clearly relate and shifts focus away from the fact that Hispanics share the same concerns for the education of their children and their ability to find work as other Americans.

While we all recognize that the solutions to our statewide challenges lie in our ability to educate our children, many of our families in Indiana lack the basic academic foundations so critical to realizing positive long-term outcomes in that area. While only 11 percent of Hispanic students currently enrolled in Indiana’s public schools have a mother holding at least a bachelor’s degree, a whopping 39 percent of our community’s students have a mother holding less than a high school diploma. A quick comparison with their peers from other demographic groups (5 percent of white students, 13 percent of black ones) provides a stunning and sobering assessment of the very real education challenges facing our population and the ramifications they carry for our state if not addressed.

A review of statistics concerning working-age Hispanics in our state reveals largely similar trends. Of the nearly 189,000 Hispanics in Indiana older than 24, only 22,000 have attained a four-year degree. More staggering still, nearly 73,000 have yet to receive their high school diploma or GED.

To be sure, this problem is not exclusive to Hispanics. So the fact that Gov. Mike Pence has made workforce development, career and technical education, and collaboration with private-sector partners, plus expansion of educational options such a central part of his plan is an important step in helping Indiana students and workers bridge the skills gap.

Our Hispanic community is an extremely young one, and for this reason we can be optimistic about our ability to unlock our communal capacity.

The average age of a Hispanic Hoosier is 24, and more than 19 percent of our population is currently enrolled in our schools. More than 65 percent of Hispanics are native-born American citizens, and a large majority of those are younger than 18. Anyone who has spent any time at all with young Hispanic groups understands the vibrancy and passion with which challenges are met. Channeling that energy to address our state’s most serious and immediate concerns will yield in short order great strides in reversing so many of the statistics I’ve listed here.

Most Hispanics, as national polling consistently demonstrates, understand this and care most deeply for the issues they know will determine the continued growth and prosperity of our entire population. We boast many business, civic and education leaders who are doing incredible work to address our most pressing statewide challenges, both Hispanic-related and otherwise, though these folks rarely get the kudos they deserve. Instead, so much local media attention is given to immigration-related topics, issues that can only be appropriately solved in a comprehensive way at the federal level.

While there is no doubt, as the studies indicate, that immigration is certainly very important to many Hispanics, the media ought to recognize and elected officials understand that all of us share a concern for our country and a passion for addressing the most daunting economic and educational challenges it faces.

Danny Lopez is a special assistant to Gov. Mike Pence and executive director of the Indiana Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.