Thursday, February 19, 2004

Educational Wedge Politics? No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Latino Vote

Education, considered one of the top priorities of Latinos, was the topic of choice by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation for their second nationwide survey. Looking specifically at Latino attitudes and opinions towards education with targeted questions about NCLB, results indicate that Latinos as a group are more optimistic and positive about their children's education, the schools, and teachers when compared to attitudes of whites and African Americans.
    Latinos also are willing supporters of the key principles embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the education reform law that is the core of President George W. Bush's education agenda. The legislation requires all schools to use standardized tests to measure a student's progress and sanctions those that do not improve. On the issue of how to deal with schools that repeatedly fail to meet performance levels, when forced to chose, Latinos are more likely to favor helping to improve the schools but requiring students to continue to attend than whites, who are more likely to endorse the principle of letting parents move their children elsewhere.

    Over two-thirds (67%) of Latinos agree that the federal government should require states to set strict performance standards for public schools. About two in ten (21%) disagree and 12% say they do not know if states should set strict performance standards for public schools.

    Three-quarters (75%) of Latinos agree that standardized testing should be used to determine whether students are promoted or can graduate (20% say such testing should not be used for this purpose and 5% say they don't know.

These results certainly bring to mind whether NCLB could be used as a wedge issue in this current election. Given Latino support for standardized testing and for strong educational standards, how reasonable would it be to assume the vote would be for that guy who tells us he is the education president?

Just looking at the voucher issue, Latinos, especially the foreign born, are probably less likely to be swayed on this subject. While Latinos support choice in education, results (warning: pdf file) indicate that Latinos aren't comfortable expressing an opinion about vouchers. Still, survey results indicate that foreign born Latinos would prefer to help a failing school and stay there, rather than going out of the community to another school.

While Latinos support standardized testing and academic standards in this study, it would be important to point out that this is not necessarily support of specific NCLB mandates. In fact, survey results showed that very few knew much about NCLB. 87% of Latinos, 81% of whites, and 85% of African Americans "did not know whether an education reform bill had been signed into law by President Bush". This lack of knowledge certainly is my experience in the community I live in as well.

The follow up question would be: if Latinos knew how NCLB works and what the consequences of NCLB high stakes testing will be, would there still be support for NCLB? Here lies a golden opportunity to get out to Latinos and others in the community information about the problems with NCLB and how high-stakes testing transform a good idea into a really destructive force.

For starters, the way NCLB works is perverse. It wasn't meant to be rigged originally but now schools with a diverse student body have a much harder time with passing NCLB standards. The more diverse the student body, the more demographic subgroups are set up. In order to pass, a school must be absolutely perfect in every way; not only does every single subgroup must achieve a 95% participation rate, but each subgroup must pass at the deemed achievement level which becomes higher every year. By the year 2012, this level of passing must be at the impossible rate of 100%. Something is inherently wrong with a system that punishes diversity in a school.

At this point, NCLB does not exempt the English language learners from testing. English language learners must reach 100% proficiency without additional educational services. Parent assistance programs in community based centers for Latino parents have also been eliminated in the current Bush budget. These centers had provided additional resources for parents to help their families and kids. While tutoring and transfers are offered to parents in schools that fail, parents find that there is not enough space for all their kids to be placed in other schools. The NCLB program is underfunded by $9.4 billion. Expensive tutoring, offered by private firms, only suck money away from already stressed school budgets.

While this study forms a nice baseline for further work, a deeper understanding of Latino dynamics is certainly warranted, as reflected in Luis Toro's splendid essays recently. Some questions have been raised concerning the demographics of this surveyed group such as SES and geographic differences. This analysis, apparently, will come later(warning: pdf file).

But to get back to the wedge issue, there has been much discussion that a Democratic Latino vote is not guarenteed in this election year. For instance, in a recent message to House Democrats, Bendixen and Cardona warn that the more newly arrived Latinos may well be more 'persuadable' to be swing voters. Along those lines, Republicans plan to put a lot of money in courting Latino voters, using Spanish language media.

The verdict isn't in yet but it could be if we ignore this situation. We need to be just as aggressive as the Republicans. Education is a hot topic amongst Latino voters. Increasing awareness of the current new education 'reform' problems may be a window of opportunity for Democrats to mobilize voters so we can vote against the guy who brought us educational cuts and the nightmare that is NCLB.

Special thanks to Luis Toro who reviewed an early draft and provided valuable feedback.
crossposted at the american street