The Fiscal Cliff: Jeopardizing the Foundation and Momentum Behind Latino Educational Achievement

This election the Latino community played a significant role in deciding who leads our country over the next four years. Left and right you heard pundits analyze the power of the Latino electorate -- NBC Latino even claimed "the road to the White House is through el barrio." Around the nation, we made our voice heard on Election Day.

Our voices heard, it is vital to turn this clout into tangible benefits for our community. The fact is our community has more skin in the game this time around. We have started to see a positive shift in Latino educational success in this country and as we approach the "fiscal cliff," we must call on those we helped to elect to protect the programs responsible for this turnaround.

According to a recently released Pew Hispanic Center report and their analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the nation's Latino student population reached several milestones in the last few years. In 2011, for the first time, one-quarter of public elementary school children were Hispanic. More than 12.4 million Hispanics were enrolled in the nation's public schools pre-K through 12th grade in October 2011. For the first time, the number of 18- to 24-year-old Latinos enrolled in college exceeded 2 million and reached a record 16.5 percent share of all college enrollments. We are the largest minority group among the country's four-year college and university students. As recently as October 2006, Latinos were only 11 percent of all college students. Years of hard work and investment in our children's education have brought us to this important point.

To what can we attribute this success? To begin with, we must recognize the importance of public-private partnerships that contribute to the development of innovative programs, increased engagement and new technology. Since our founding almost 40 years ago, LNESC has been at the forefront of this program model. From the private sector, we partner with companies like McDonald's, Shell, Procter & Gamble, and others to deliver programs targeted at improving literacy, providing in-depth college access workshops, and awarding scholarships to deserving students. On the federal side, LNESC receives federal grants, specifically, working with the Department of Education to address the educational needs of disadvantaged students across the nation with a particular focus on access to higher education.

One such program is the Department of Education's TRIO initiative, which provides competitive grants to institutions of higher education, public and private organizations, and high schools to help low-income, first generation students and students with disabilities access and complete college. They deliver a variety of services to students, including assistance in selecting and enrolling in college, tutoring, counseling and career workshops. The National Education Association finds that the automatic cuts would take $66 million out of TRIO in 2013 and would eliminate services to as many as 61,000 low-income students.

TRIO is the cornerstone of LNESC's strategy to closing the achievement gap in the Hispanic community. Losing even a small amount of this federal funding would severely limit our ability to serve the thousands of in-need students we support annually.

Approximately 8,000 disadvantaged students will receive college access services over the next five years through LNESC's 12 federal TRIO programs, including 10 Upward Bound and 2 Talent Search programs. Students enrolled in these programs are oblivious to the politics that determine whether or not they will get vital one-on-one counseling time with an LNESC academic advisor, instead they are preoccupied with life in some of the U.S.'s poorest communities.

One such student is David Thompson, one of LNESC's Upward Bound participants in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I met David recently and he told me that the community he lives in is commonly referred as the "war zone" due to high crime and drug violence. He was proud to report that despite distractions like drug raids in his apartment complex, he just received an "A-" in physics and was on track to graduate, thanks, in large part, to the motivation he received from his Upward Bound advisors and peers. In 2012, LNESC Albuquerque's Upward Bound program sent approximately 80 percent of its seniors to college (well above the state's average in 2010 of 41 percent).

In coordination with our privately funded college access programming, LNESC's federal programs are lifelines for students struggling to navigate poverty and an educational system that rewards those who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on test preparation courses and private tutors.

Education programs have already suffered significant, harmful cuts to both K-12 and higher education. They cannot continue to be a source for deficit reduction. As the Latino population continues to grow, it is vital to the success of our nation that we continue to invest highly in educational opportunities for high-need communities. We must not balance the budget on the backs of our children and gamble with their educational future -- we have overcome far too many challenges to take a step backward.