Latinos now make up a majority of California’s public school students, cracking the 50 percent barrier for the first time in the state’s history, according to data released Friday by the state Department of Education.
Almost 50.4 percent of the state’s students in the 2009-10 school year identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, up 1.36 percent from the previous year.
In comparison, 27 percent of California’s 6.2 million students identified themselves as white, 9 percent as Asian and 7 percent as black. Students calling themselves Filipino, Pacific Islander, Native American or other total almost 7 percent.
It’s no surprise that Latinos make up the new majority in California schools, considering that their numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. In 2009, Latinos made up 37 percent of the state’s population, a number that continues to increase, according to the California Department of Finance.
But their electoral sway has not grown by similar amounts, because almost 40 percent of adult Latinos in California are ineligible to vote, said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, an associate professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.
The challenge, she said, is finding ways to get Latino parents involved in schools when they cannot vote for members of their local school board.
In San Francisco, where an estimated one-third of public school students have a parent who was not born in this country, voters were asked this month to allow noncitizens to vote in school board elections. While Proposition D lost, 45 to 55 percent, the support the ballot measure received from civic leaders showed the growing concern about the role of immigrant parents in local schools.
Nearly 1.5 million students are English language learners, but many more still struggle in the classroom with difficult, subject-specific terms, he said.
“For example, if you are studying social science, understanding words like ‘justice’ and ‘beauty’ can be difficult,” he said. “In math, it can be even harder.”
Fuller, the UC Berkeley professor, suggested state educators look at language education in an entirely new way.
“If the majority of the population is becoming bilingual,” he said, referring to the growing Latino population learning English, “why shouldn’t the white minority also become bilingual?”