NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Julio Fuentes on Empowering Hispanic Communities to Demand, and Attract, Better Schools

By Romy Drucker | June 8, 2016

See previous 74 interviews: Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Professor Matt Delmont, who talks about how northern whites used busing to derail school integration. Full archive here
The growing power and influence of the U.S. Hispanic population is lost on no one: politicians, pollsters and CEOs. But what has been lost are generations of school kids.
Hispanics are the nation’s most undereducated minority group. While more Hispanic teens than ever are enrolling in college, there is fresh urgency to ensure that trend continues. Even more urgent: Closing the persistent Hispanic student achievement gap. The stats are alarming. In 2015, only 20 percent of Hispanic students were proficient in eighth-grade math on federal tests, compared to 43 percent of white students. While dropout rates for Hispanics have been gradually improving, each year from 1990 to 2013, Hispanics had a higher dropout rate compared to the rates for both whites and blacks.
Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO), is on a crusade to rewrite this narrative. His mission: to empower and mobilize Hispanic parents, pastors and business leaders to advocate for better school options in their local communities.
The good news is that Hispanics have a huge potential to inform key issues and influence national politics, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. But, says Pew, they’ve also tended to “punch below their weight” in the political arena. That’s exactly what Fuentes set out to change when he transitioned from a successful business career to become a full-time advocate for Hispanic children: training and activating his community to fight for their children’s futures.
Today, Hispanic CREO has roots in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas. Fuentes says their work embodies the spirit of Hispanic culture, a spirit of striving and achieving. This year marks the 15th anniversary or “quinceanera” for the organization. We talked to Fuentes about the next 15 years. (To read a Spanish version of the Fuentes interview, click here)
The 74: Hispanic CREO, now celebrating its 15th anniversary, is the only national public policy Hispanic organization dedicated solely to K-12 education reform. What are your hopes for the next 15 years?
Fuentes: Hopefully there’s no need for Hispanic CREO, because everything is great and every child has access to a quality education. That’s my dream.
Whether that can become reality or not is yet to be determined. There’s a lot of hype and excitement around our culture and the rising census numbers, and the increasing purchasing power of Hispanics. It is all very exciting. But I like to say that if you start peeling back that banana there are concerns: Right now the Hispanic dropout rate is around 30 to 40 percent. In some districts, it’s more than 50 percent. And we are supposedly the future of this country numbers-wise.
In the next 15 years, it’s no longer a Latino issue. It’s an American crisis, and everybody should take this as an eye-opening statistic.
You help give parents, students and business leaders the tools to advocate for change. What’s the biggest challenge?
No matter what walk of life you come from – rich, poor, urban, rural – everyone needs to be talking about this issue [of education]. And that’s part of our challenge – making this conversation relevant enough to be front and center. Here we are in the middle of a presidential debate and no one really wants to talk about our issue much. Or if they do talk about it, they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Making this conversation front and center — our community needs to have that shaking, a wake-up call, of what’s happening out there in our schools.
You had a successful career in business before taking up this issue. What is the role of the business community in driving the conversation and generating solutions?
Finding a talented workforce is a true problem across the country. It’s important for the business community to be engaged on this. Without a talented workforce there’s a huge effect on America’s bottom line. I think the untapped market is the small business owner, the entrepreneur that has his head down on his desk and is just trying to do business. That‘s the individual that we really want to champion for – they get it, but don’t have the time to go out and fight for this. That is our key market there – the small business owner.
Who are the business leaders carrying the torch on this now? The role models?
Paul Martinez, Roly Marante, Jorge Mas – they all are really strong advocates.
One of Hispanic CREO’s most visible efforts of late has been the “Drop the Suit” campaign in Florida, pushing back on the teachers union lawsuit against Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program (Read The 74’s coverage of the suit here). What’s the state of play?
It’s a real threat that we have hanging above our heads: 80,000 parents and families don’t know if the scholarship program will be gone next year or six months from now. With our “drop the suit” campaign we are trying to let this message get across to the right folks and portray what the teachers union is doing in the court of public opinion.
And 80,000 is a huge number, but there are so many other families out there. We’ve been able to make people aware of the scholarship, aware of what the teachers union threat is to the scholarship, and the absolute craziness that the teachers union is even pursuing in trying to kill this scholarship program. We’re not going to let up at all. We’re going to continue pushing.
A survey you conducted in partnership with the Friedman Foundation showed that 88 percent of Latino voters think improving education should be a priority. If that’s true, why don’t we hear more from our legislators and candidates about it?
Hispanics, for the most part, are entrepreneurial spirits – whatever income bracket they come from, they seem to always have some sort of vision of owning a business, working at a corporation, striving. We use that poll to educate elected officials. Elected officials come into our community centers and churches and think that immigration might be the top issue to gather votes or what not, but they’re totally missing the boat. That’s not what Hispanics want to hear about. That’s not the topic that’s going to garner support. We use the survey to educate and talk to candidates or legislators to say education is the important thing to our community.
We’ve done that poll over and over again and it’s always the same result.
(To read a Spanish version of this article, click here)
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