Entrepreneurs and corporate executives are claiming a new lead role in driving for reforms in education – not just as a social obligation but as good business. Early in May the Hispanic Federation, based in New York, held the first-ever Hispanic Education Summit at Pace University, just a few blocks from City Hall and the headquarters of the Department of Education. Participants agreed that this was a seminal event for two reasons: the frankness of education officials to admit the severity of the problem, and the strong and early participation of the business community.
Raul Perez is president and chief executive officer of Unittech, an information technology company based in Mt. Kisco, New York. He was among the first to begin developing the idea of the summit, in response to the disconnect he saw growing wider despite the gains of the broader Hispanic population.
"The Hispanic community is so dynamic, it is really amazing how the market has developed," he says. "However, we still face serious challenges in business, in health care, in labor, in immigration. These are problems for both immigrants and for native-born Latinos, and the common issue, the key issue, is education. We still lag behind other groups in many quality of life issues.
"From a business point of view, the more educated our community is, the more tools we will have to move ahead more broadly. That means more income, more business opportunities, more political influence. But opportunities don't happen by accident."
Those views are shared by executives at large corporations, too.
"Getting involved in education is the proper role of business," says Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, vice-president of government and public affairs for Cablevision Systems and the first Hispanic woman on the New York State Board of Regents. "This is our future employee base, one that comes in with natural skills in the community and an affinity for the market. Work force preparation is very much the proper role of business. But, this is also our future market. An educated market is a growing market. From both vantage points it is very important for business to invest in education."
Washington Mutual, one of the largest financial institutions in the country, was a co-sponsor of the summit, and supports education initiatives across the country.
"Washington Mutual has a long history of supporting education," says Allen Gomez, vice-president and corporate giving manager for the Northeast. "We especially support K-12 public education. It is a core part of our national grant-making strategy. In 2004 we gave a national total of $19 million, specifically to promote parental engagement, financial literacy, professional development of teachers, and curriculum development."
Mr. Gomez was particularly enthusiastic about the summit because it was a Latino-led initiative, and also because there is a strong business case to be made. "We realize the potential of the Latino market," he says. "It makes good business sense to be cultivating that market at all different levels. Many parts of our community are still poor or working class. But there are also many young Latinos who are second- or third-generation. They are well educated, and are interested in middle-class opportunities, but they are still interested in helping. That is where the summit and the Hispanic Federation come in: they are successful in getting successful Hispanics to reconnect to the community through philanthropy."
The need for that reconnection is stark. Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, stated in his opening address to the summit that when he took over two years ago the graduation rate for Hispanic students in the city's schools had languished at a dismal 41 percent "for as long as anyone could remember. And that is shameful. Two years later we are now at 46 percent, and math scores are the highest ever. But we need to be at 90 percent. In New York City schools, the student population is 38 percent Latino. We don't succeed unless Latino students succeed."
Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez, current president of the Hispanic Federation, issued a stern challenge to the business leaders and public officials present. "Only a third of all Latino children in the city make it into pre-kindergarten, and for those that do, by the third grade only a third of those met state reading standards in 2003. Our goals should be a seat in pre-K waiting for every 3-year-old, and graduation rates for Latino students just as high – and just as important – as hotel occupancy rates of 90 percent."
And while Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami get much of the national attention for Hispanic socioeconomic issues, many summit participants said it was appropriate for the event to be held in New York because it is recognized as the financial and commercial capital of the world. That fact is another reason for urgency, says Ms. Rodriguez-Lopez. "This is such a business hub, and business recognizes that the Latino population will be important in the work force. To stay competitive we have to have an educated work force. And without education, we will not be able to be the homeowners or business owners or consumers of the future."
One of the healthiest developments of the summit was the candor and urgency uninhibited by political correctness. "My father was a Greek immigrant who did not get to finish grammar school," says Michael Gabriel, chief information officer for Home Box Office (HBO). "He really stressed the importance of education to my sister and me when we were young – it was a strong focus for us growing up. That focus does not seem to exist today in many immigrant communities for a variety of reasons, some good, but some not so good."
He says he was impressed by the passion evident at the summit, but also frustrated by the inaction to date on the part of governments and school systems. "The summit was a call to action, but there has to be visibility and there has to be follow-up," Mr. Gabriel says. "We can't just let it go. It is up to the people – the parents and the business leaders – to continue to push this issue."
HBO is part of the Time Warner entertainment complex, which has a broad commitment to education. In January 2004 Lisa Quiroz, publisher of People en Español, was made vice-president of corporate responsibility. She believes very strongly that businesses and entrepreneurs cannot just expect government to take care of educating Hispanic youth.
"Relying on taxes alone for education is not reliable strategy," says Ms. Quiroz. "Our work force has to be reflective of the country. We have a responsibility to have people from a wide variety of communities, but there is a huge socioeconomic gap. Poor people are going to college much less than are affluent people. This is a problem at a very basic level for Time Warner to fill jobs at all levels of the company. And it is the same all across the country."
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the summit was a sense of common cause, and a quest for accountability. "All corporations do philanthropy," says Cablevision's Ms. Cortes-Vazquez, "but it is not enough to provide corporate support. The employee base should be encouraged to give time and effort as well. Education is everyone's responsibility. We are all taxpayers, individuals or corporations, and I don't want to pay for a failing system. As a business executive I know that I am going to have to pay for education one way or another, and I would rather pay for it up front."
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