As students return to school this year, including 13 million Hispanic children, thousands of Hispanic American churches will go with them. We dedicate each new school year by celebrating Education Sunday on the first Sunday of September, because the cross is both vertical and horizontal – encompassing kingdom and community, righteousness and justice, prayer and activism. The NHCLC (National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference) is equipping parents with resources such as our parent toolkit and scholarship opportunities, and we are empowering church leaders with tools and training offered by our Faith & Education Coalition. We are people of the Word who care deeply about literacy, academic excellence, and our children.
Latino congregations, representing 16 million Hispanic American Evangelicals, are standing together to encourage academic achievement and insist on education equity, because Luke 10:27 teaches us to “love the Lord with all our soul, strength and mind – and our neighbors as ourselves.” This year, on Education Sunday, I am especially focused on that final element of Christian orthopraxy, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
It is good and right for Christian parents to ensure their children receive a high quality education. For some families there are multiple excellent options, including private and home schooling. For others, public school is the best or only option. In fact, more than 90 percent of U.S. students will attend public schools this year. So it’s clear that loving our neighbor as ourselves includes ensuring that our neighbor’s children, as well as our own, have access to a high quality education. It is a matter of biblical justice, an ideal we must honor if we are to be a land of liberty and justice for all.
Currently, justice is not being served throughout our nation’s schools. Research tells us that Hispanic students make up about an equal proportion of all public high school graduates (18 percent) and college students (19 percent). Yet Hispanic students are earning college degrees at significantly lower rates than their peers and are more likely to require remedial courses in their first year. Meanwhile, across all demographics, 28 percent to 40 percent of college students require at least one remedial course to get up to speed – courses students and their families must pay for but for which they receive no credit. It is unacceptable that students are graduating from high school without the basic knowledge and skills to get through their first year in college. By not insisting on equitable education options for all students, including high and comparable academic standards, we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can do better, and we must, for our children. For our neighbor’s children.
As the 2016 presidential election cycle heats up, the Latino and evangelical communities must ask candidates to clearly articulate how their vision for education will bring equity to classrooms and respect the the image of God in every student. Talking points that advocate a return to the status quo, based on pessimism and offering with no alternatives, will not suffice. Hispanic and faith voters want plans that offer equitable opportunity for all students, no matter where they grow up or attend school.
The church members celebrating Education Sunday this month are precisely the voters who hold the keys for whomever hopes to assume the nation’s highest office next. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in the country, and one recent study suggests the Republican nominee will need to earn as much as 47 percent of the Latino vote to win the popular vote. Whatever party represented, education is on the mind of Hispanic voters, and we are both ready and willing to take action in support of justice-minded, equitable education for all.
Earning the Hispanic vote may be a tall task for the GOP field, many of whom continue to alienate the Latino community. The intolerance spouted by Donald Trump may sell newspapers, but it won’t win elections. And while Mr. Trump’s bloviating doesn’t characterize the Republican Party, others have been reluctant to offer any kind of vision to address Hispanic voters’ concerns – namely, how to address illegal immigration with human decency or how to create opportunity for minority groups that continue to face economic and social barriers.
For that reason, Republican presidential hopefuls would be wise to embrace the nationwide effort to raise classroom expectations and the success states across the Union are achieving as a result. This is the most important education reform in the past quarter century, offering practical, locally-led measures to improve student outcomes and student outlooks – not just for the highest or lowest achievers, but for all students.
As a pastor and as President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, I look forward to helping Hispanic Christians answer the high calling to love the Lord with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength and all our minds. May God bless our nation as we show His love to our neighbors, to our neighborhood schools, and to all who call America home.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Churches and people of faith can find resources to support Education Sunday at www.FaithandEducation.com.