12/26/2012 10:52 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Education Parity: School Choice Equals Opportunities For Hispanics

The Latino population is one of many groups affected by a national education reform. One of the most discussed programs is that of school choice, which varies from state to state, and offers families the opportunity to choose a school for their children other than the one assigned by geographic default.

Take for instance in Indiana, where a private-school choice program has more than 9,300 students involved.

"There's a fairly extensive sort of tiered school choice/voucher program in its second year where based on income, kids could qualify for partial or full dollar amounts of what the state would spend on them in their district," Indiana Commission on Hispanic and Latino Affairs Executive Director Daniel Lopez tells VOXXI. "It could be applied either partially or fully to a private school of their choice."

Lopez said the program can be compared to a similar initiative in Florida, the only difference being the Hoosier State impacts more students. He added that enrollment is growing, which is a result of advocates spreading the world out in the Latino community.

"These conversations are happening," Lopez said. "As more families learn about opportunities that are out there, you're going to see more taking advantage of them. There's no doubt about it, the reforms we have in place have been extremely positive."

The 2010 census lists roughly 390,000 Latinos living in Indiana. That figure nearly doubled from the 2000 Census, when the population was about 214,000. A closer look at the census numbers reveals the highest concentration of Latinos fall between the ages of 5 and 15 (about 19 percent).

"This is a community that is going to make up a significant and growing percentage of our state student population and workforce in the coming years," Lopez said. "School choice efforts are, in my opinion, critical to ensuring that they have every opportunity to achieve academically, regardless of their family's income."

Overall, Indiana's graduation rate is in the middle of the national pack. The 2011 Latino's graduation rate was 80.5 percent compared to 87.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 75.15 percent for African-American students. It'll be a few years before state officials see the results of the school choice program on graduation rates.

Still, Lopez is optimistic it'll have a positive effect.

"This is a big issue for Hispanics and given the fact a lot of Hispanics in our state tend to be lower income, vulnerable population, but are religious, many of them would like to have their kids in private school but simply can't afford it," Lopez said. "School choice is ideal for Hispanic families so the trick now is as a state, 'Are we effectively communicating to these folks what their options are?'"

The Commission on Hispanic and Latino Affairs is a state agency tasked with looking at educational issues and making legislative recommendations. As the executive director, Lopez said his job is to create maximum choices for these families and allowing kids who are in difficult situations to move into better situations. He stressed the end game should be focusing on the child over the system.

Naturally the discussion about the school choice program involves students moving into private schools, but Lopez feels that's not necessarily true. Some families may decide to keep their kids in traditional public school, which because of the charter school talk are being strengthened by good teachers creating better learning environments.

According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 44 percent of people in the United States support school choice programs, which is a 10 percent increase in favorability from the year before.

"Overall, it's an ongoing process but we're certainly moving in the right direction," Lopez said. "Looking at education reform from the perspective of the individual families and what choices they have, is the right way to go. And I think for Hispanics, it'll pay dividends moving forward."

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