By WILL KANE, San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO - Latinos now make up a majority of California's public school students, cracking the 50 percent barrier for the first time in the state's history, according to Department of Education data.
Almost 50.4 percent of the state's students in the 2009-10 school year identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, up 1.36 percent from the previous year.
In comparison, 27 percent of California's 6.2 million students identified themselves as white, 9 percent as Asian and 7 percent as black. Students calling themselves Filipino, Pacific Islander, Native American or other total almost 7 percent.
While the result was no surprise to educators, experts say the shift underscores the huge impact Latinos already have on California's politics, economy and school system.
That influence will only grow as Latino parents -- now in the majority -- realize many of the schools their children attend are underfunded, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at University of California, Berkeley.
"It turns upside down how we think about California students," he said.
"A lot depends on the extent to which Latino parents come together and organize," Fuller added. "These are parents who historically have not had much political power. But as they are coming together and feeling their oats, they may organize around education."
It's no surprise that Latinos make up the new majority in California schools, considering that their numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. In 2009, Latinos made up 37 percent of the state's population, a number that continues to increase, according to the California Department of Finance.
But their electoral sway has not grown by similar amounts, because almost 40 percent of adult Latinos in California are ineligible to vote, said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, an associate professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.
The challenge, she said, is finding ways to get Latino parents involved in schools when they cannot vote for members of their local school board.
"How do we come up with constructive ways to do that, considering the limitations on how these parents can participate? That's the question from here," she said.
California schools need to do a better job of reaching out to that increasing number of Latino students, said David Gomez, president of the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators and a school superintendent in Ventura County.
Nearly 1.5 million students are English language learners, but many more still struggle in the classroom with difficult, subject-specific terms, he said.
"For example, if you are studying social science, understanding words like 'justice' and 'beauty' can be difficult," he said. "In math, it can be even harder."
Fuller suggested state educators look at language education in an entirely new way.
"If the majority of the population is becoming bilingual," he said, referring to the growing Latino population learning English, "why shouldn't the white minority also become bilingual?"