Hispanic Support for School Choice Is High

Published January 1, 2008

Hoping to secure Latino votes, presidential candidates are talking much about immigration reform. But Latinos think educational liberty for parents is at least as important as whether more fences are built or whether illegal immigrants get to stay in the country.

An October 2007 survey of 2,000 American adults published by Harvard University and the journal Education Next revealed 60 percent of Hispanics support vouchers that would allow low-income families to send their children to private school, and 54 percent of Hispanics support initiatives to provide private-school vouchers to all children in failing public schools.

The poll also revealed strong support for school choice among African-Americans, with 67 percent supporting vouchers for low-income families.

“I think that candidates for all levels of office would be wise to realize that the movement for meaningful school choice has a broad base of supporters,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications for the Washington, DC-based Alliance for School Choice.

Verified Results

Along with being good education policy, the survey confirms earlier polls’ indications that providing school choice could be politically profitable for candidates hoping to appeal to Latinos.

A nationwide poll of 820 registered Hispanic voters, conducted last summer by the Alliance for School Choice and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), found Latinos will back candidates who carry the school choice banner.

Sixty-five percent of the survey’s respondents–49 percent of whom identified themselves as Democrats–are “more likely” to vote for political candidates who support school choice.

“It’s something for political candidates to think about when shaping their message to Hispanic voters during the current presidential campaign,” said Anne Guarnera, HCREO’s membership and communications coordinator. “Politicians at every level–national, state, and local–should include choice in their platforms.”

Forty-three percent of respondents picked school choice as their top priority.

“That’s a strong statement when you consider that respondents frequently ranked school choice higher than the war or health care,” Guarnera said.

Nothing New

One reason could be that Latin immigrants are already comfortable with the concept of school choice.

“Immigrants from Latin America are very familiar with the concept,” Guarnera said. “It may be difficult for them to navigate the system here because of the language barrier, but the concept of school choice is nothing new to them.”

While education researchers have succeeded in calling much-needed attention to the academic achievement gap between black and white students, polls reveal there’s also a serious need to focus on the equally large and stubborn gap between white and Latino students.

A study of urban school districts released in November by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revealed a 25-point gap between eighth-grade white and Latino students in reading, only slightly smaller than the 26-point gap between white and black students. Gaps between whites and Hispanics ranged from 11 points in Chicago to 40 points in Austin.

“This achievement gap has persisted far too long, and it’s time for legislators across the country to embrace school choice as a solution,” Campanella said. “We can’t continue to talk about the achievement gap. We must do something about it.”

Dropout Rate

One of many glaring consequences of the academic chasm between Hispanics and white or Asian students is a daunting dropout rate.

More than 20 percent of U.S. Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24 were dropouts in 2005, according to NCES. These are individuals who were not in school and had not passed General Educational Development (GED) tests.

Even when adjusting for Latinos who dropped out before arriving in the United States–about 80 percent of Latino immigrants–“the dropout rate for Hispanic students is higher than for other major ethnic groups in America,” according to a study released in November by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

According to authors Renee Bou-Waked and Madison Jones, a lack of English proficiency is a major factor in immigrant Hispanics’ higher dropout rate.

Research by the Pew Hispanic Center offers further confirmation, indicating that in 2000 nearly 60 percent of 16- to 19-year-old Hispanics who did not speak English well were dropouts, while only 13 percent of Latinos in homes where English was the only language spoken dropped out.

Better Performance

But English proficiency doesn’t automatically produce sufficient academic improvement. The dropout rate among English-proficient Hispanics is still higher than other ethnic groups, according to NCPA.

Bou-Waked and Jones promote school choice as a way of addressing schools’ inconsistency in educating minority groups, including Hispanics. They conclude open-enrollment policies allowing parents to choose charter schools for their children would benefit both schools and students.

“With school choice, schools that perform exceptionally well with one subgroup of students could specialize,” Bou-Waked and Jones write. “This could include, for example, programs geared toward English-language acquisition by Spanish-speaking students or other minorities, low-income and disadvantaged students, or low or high achievers.”

Hispanic students not only have a greater chance of getting a better education–particularly by becoming proficient in the key academic areas of math and reading–if they attend a charter school, they also are less likely to drop out, the NCPA study noted.

“If [schools catering to certain populations] competed with other schools through open-enrollment policies, they would have a comparative advantage in Hispanic education that would improve academic achievement and attract even more under-performing students,” the NCPA scholars wrote.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“Americans continue to support school vouchers, Harvard poll shows,” Alliance for School Choice, October 3, 2007: http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/more.aspx?IITypeID=3&IIID=3453

“The Nation’s Report Card: Trial Urban District Assessment: 2007 Reading & Mathematics Results at Grades 4 and 8,” National Center for Education Statistics, November 15, 2007: http://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/remarks2007/11_15_2007.asp

“School Choice and Hispanic Dropouts,” National Center for Policy Analysis, November 2007: http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=15245

“Student Assessment Division,” Texas Education Agency: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/

“Hispanic Voters: Perceptions of and Perspectives On School Choice,” Alliance for School Choice and Hispanic CREO: June 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22437

“Hispanic Youth Dropping out of U.S. Schools: Measuring the Challenge” by Richard Fry, Pew Hispanic Center, June 12, 2003: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22438