...The education system can make all sorts of achievement gains but still fail because of the substandard education too many Hispanics receive.
In the words of a former republican president, they got thumped last night. While this is not the space to recount Republican failures in both the presidential and senate races, this much is clear: They cannot win national elections anymore by merely appealing to white voters. The last president who won with the percentage of white voters that Mitt Romney achieved was George H.W. Bush in 1988 (both received 59% of the white vote). However, Bush Senior received over 400 electoral votes; Mitt Romney won 206. The white share of the electorate is currently dissolving at a rate of about 3 percent every election.
And this is just the beginning of the demographic wave. According to the U.S. Census, racial and ethnic minority births now account for more than 50 percent of all births in the country. Hispanics, now 10 percent of the electorate, are the fastest-growing segment of the population—and one-third are currently under the age of eighteen.
The challenge that Republicans face is similar to the challenge facing the education system: Hispanics account for 20 percent of the public-education population, and the number is growing. Unfortunately, the graduation rate for Hispanics is 10 percent below the national average, and the dropout rate is a staggering 17 percent. So just as the Republicans can win as great a proportion of white voters as they ever have and still lose, the education system can make all sorts of achievement gains but still fail because of the substandard education too many Hispanics receive. As Edweek reported, this trend starts young. Hispanics are the “least likely of any of the largest ethnic groups to attend preschool programs and many start kindergarten speaking little or no English.” In eighth grade, they score near twenty points lower on NAEP than do their white peers and are far more likely to attend a failing school.
In addition, some states in the country have made it harder for Hispanic children to even attend school. One of the harshest state immigration laws, the one in Alabama, requires K-12 students to prove their immigration and citizenship status. Just the threat of this law has led families to refrain from sending their children to school, thereby obstructing their educational opportunities. This is just one example of many unnecessary burdens facing our nation’s Hispanic population.
President Obama, the man who supplied Mitt Romney’s electoral thumping, laid out a plan last year to improve the education of Hispanic students. That plan is much the same as the President’s overall education strategy, except that it calls for the recruitment of more Hispanic teachers—specifically, more male Hispanic teachers. Currently, male Hispanics represent less than 2 percent of public school teachers. Again, when this number exists adjacent to the fact that 20 percent of the overall student population is Hispanic, the shortage becomes self-evident.
The biggest obstacle is the language barrier. In some areas of Arizona, 70 percent of Hispanic children begin Kindergarten without knowing a word of English. If a Kindergarten curriculum begins with children learning how to read, this poses an obvious problem: How can we expect kids who can’t even speak English to keep up with their cohort? As the President’s white paper said, “More research and evaluation is needed on the types of language instruction education programs that are most effective for English learners.” This is true—but quality ELL teachers who are trained, equipped, and qualified are essential now, and in short supply. In Chicago, the number of ELL students has increased while the number of teachers trained to teach them continues to fall. Loan forgiveness and other financial incentives could play a powerful role in acquiring the needed talent.
Right-wing ideologues argue that the Republicans simply nominated a presidential candidate who was not conservative enough. Likewise, others contend that merely improving education so that it lifts the tide for all will improve the lots of Hispanic students. Both arguments are devoid of reality. Each new circumstance, problem, and election requires its own unique strategy. In order to rebrand itself, the Republican Party will have to find a new message to minority voters— especially Hispanics. Equally, public education will need to find new methods and new resources to close the opportunity gap for Hispanic students. To do neither will cause each to fade into oblivion.