- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

Roughly one-fourth of the nation’s kindergartners are Hispanic, evidence of an accelerating trend that will see minority children become the majority by 2023.

Census data set for release Thursday also shows that Hispanics make up about one-fifth of all K-12 students. Hispanics’ growth and changes in the youth population are certain to influence political debate, from jobs and immigration to the No Child Left Behind education law, for years.

The ethnic shifts in school enrollment are most evident in the West. States such as Arizona, California and Nevada are seeing an influx of Hispanics because of immigration and higher birthrates.

Minority students in that region exceed non-Hispanic whites at the pre-college grade levels, with about 37 percent of the students Hispanic. Hispanics make up 54 percent of the students in New Mexico, 47 percent in California, 44 percent in Texas and 40 percent in Arizona.

In 2007, more than 40 percent of all students in K-12 were minorities - Hispanics, blacks, Asian-Americans and others. That’s double the percentage of three decades ago.

In colleges, Hispanics made up 12 percent of full-time undergraduate and graduate students, 2 percent more than in 2006. Still, that is short of Hispanics’ 15 percent representation in the total U.S. population.

“The future of our education system depends on how we can advance Hispanics through the ranks,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “In many cases, it’s going to be a challenge, because they are the children of immigrants, and their English is not as strong. Many have parents without a high school or college education.”

Minorities are projected to become the majority of the overall U.S. population by 2042. For minority children, that shift is seen coming in 2023, seven years earlier than the previous estimate, from 2004.

The accelerated timetable is a result of immigration among Hispanics and Asians, and declining birthrates among non-Hispanic whites.

Hispanics account for more than 23 percent of kindergartners in private and public schools, according to 2007 data. That is more than triple Hispanics’ percentage in the 1970s, the height of white baby-boom enrollment in elementary and high school.

More Hispanic kindergartners in 2007 were U.S.-born than foreign-born, assuring them of citizenship that will make them eligible to vote by 2020.

The changing demographics offer opportunity and political risks for Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, and emerging Republicans such as 37-year-old Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American elected to statewide office.

Mr. Obama, who took two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, is channeling billions of federal dollars to improve schools, reduce the dropout rate and make college more affordable by increasing the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students to $5,550.

Yet his administration has been sketchy when it comes to improving classroom performance and overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act. It sets goals for schools so every student can read and do math on grade level by 2014.

The education law has major implications for both black and Hispanic students, including those who speak English as a second language, because they tend to lag whites in reading and math scores.

Mr. Obama has been largely quiet on immigration reform, which could pave the way for citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

• AP writer Libby Quaid contributed to this report.

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