COMMENTS by Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard have drawn national attention and criticism.

“If we are as white in 10 years as we are today, Western will have failed as a university,” Shepard said in a speech. He said it in his inaugural convocation six years ago and has said it every year since, according to his blog post.

Rather than listening to those who charge that Shepard wants to “weed out white people,” as the conservative website Daily Caller put it, let’s credit him for not masking his words in euphemism and consider the reasoning behind his blunt words.

In 1986, white students made up 85 percent of Washington’s K-12 public schools, compared to 60 percent in 2012. During this time, Latino student growth far outpaced all other groups, increasing by 538 percent. Next highest were Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at 126 percent.

In Bellingham, where WWU is located, Latino K-12 students increased by 1,021 percent between 1986 and 2012, compared to 5 percent growth of white students.

Like other state colleges and universities, the student body at Western hasn’t kept pace with changing K-12 demographics. In fall 2012, 76 percent of WWU’s students were white; 21 percent were students of color. The same year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 72 percent of the state’s residents were white, and 28 percent were people of color.

Shepard’s words should ring loudly. That is, if we want Washington state to remain robust and internationally competitive.

Education is the key, but this is where changing demographics present a challenge. In comparison to white students, Latino, black and Native American students are significantly more likely to live in poverty, have lower test scores, have parents with low literacy and educational levels, and lower college participation and completion rates.

It hasn’t helped that the state Legislature imposed double-digit college tuition increases in recent years. The Legislature should adequately fund the State Need Grant program to help low-income students afford college, without regard to race, and find ways to help middle-income families.

In K-12 education, there is a significant academic achievement gap when comparing student test scores by race and ethnicity. Or is the real issue an opportunity gap? Meaning, is the state providing sufficient school resources so that students with complex needs have an equitable opportunity to meet grade-level learning benchmarks?

The bipartisan state Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee
proposed recommendations again in 2014 that could help. For example, one important recommendation is to provide qualified staff to help English-language learners, many of whom are immigrants.

Currently, the majority of English-language learners in Washington state’s transitional bilingual education program are taught by para-educators, not teachers. And some have little or no second-language acquisition training.

Rather than adequately addressing opportunity gaps such as this, federal No Child Left Behind policies require the state to impose “annual yearly progress” academic goals on English-language-learning students, but without ensuring quality instruction. That’s typical practice, not best practice.

To address these shortcomings and others, policy and funding should be embedded in ESHB 2261, the state’s landmark education-reform legislation due to take effect in 2018. This is more important than ever as we move toward full funding of K-12 education, as directed by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

If we address the opportunity gap, we can close the achievement gap. One day, perhaps, students in higher education might look like those in our K-12 system, and Western Washington University wouldn’t be deemed a failure.

Let’s applaud Bruce Shepard for speaking bluntly and getting our attention.

Ricardo Sánchez is founder of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP), a program of Sea Mar Community Health Centers.