What the midterm elections could mean for Latino students

This piece was originally posted November 16, 2018 on Progress Report, a UnidosUS online destination focused on education news and perspectives.

From school grading systems to school choice, funding for early childhood education, and college affordability, in the month leading up to the midterms, UnidosUS’s education and civic engagement teams were pushing for Latinos to be education voters at the polls. Some races may be headed for a recount, others have yet to be totally counted. For now, UnidosUS is closely monitoring the situation and asking its stakeholders to do the same, looking at these changes through a lens of equity in education.

Democrats win the House of Representatives

One of the known results of this year’s elections is that Democrats have won the House of Representatives, where they now hold a 51.3% majority. This could mean more federal oversight on the Department of Education and its compliance with the 2016 Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law governing K–12 education. It could also mean greater federal title funding for schools with a large percentage of low-income or are English language learner students. Finally, the House could put more scrutiny on the Department of Education, investigating whether the approval of some state ESSA plans, primarily that of Florida, violate the law by creating accountability systems that mask performance in underserved groups of students such as those who are low-income, minorities, English language learners, or students with disabilities.

“Right away they [the US House education committee] can start holding hearings, so we’re hoping that this will provide more oversight over the Trump administration’s rollback of civil rights laws,” says Callie Kozlak, who manages UnidosUS’s education policy.

Education—most notably who should pay for it and how—was a hotly contested issue in elections all across the country, but UnidosUS chose to focus its education campaigns around California, Arizona, and Florida, states with some of the largest numbers of Latinos and English language learners.

California

California’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom won by a landslide over his Republican rival John H. Cox to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. It was an unsurprising victory for a heavily blue state, and his win will likely mean less money for private education vouchers, and more funding for early childhood education, including a push for universal preschool. In fact, Newsom vowed to make education investments that run from universal pre-chool to college savings accounts for every school-aged child in California.

“Newsom’s vision for changing California’s education system seems promising and equity- minded, but there will be major hurdles to overcome. For instance, the amount of money that will be needed to implement these visions or get programs off the ground,” says UnidosUS California Education Organizer Genesie Muñoz. “This new vison for California will also require significant collaboration between the governor, state legislators, the California Department of Education, and education stakeholders at the local level and advocates.”

And newly elected Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who ran on a platform of affordable college, says she will lower student loan debt by ensuring that more general funds are redirected for higher education, while expanding free community college across the state.

The race between Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuckfor State Superintendent for Public Instruction is still undecided, although by Thursday, Thurmond had a 74,000-vote lead. The differences between the two are relatively subtle. Tuck has run both public and charter schools, and Thurmond has not said he is opposed to them but does favor a pause on new charter school approvals until the state can determine their impact on the public school system.

“Since we don’t know the fate of this position, it’s challenging to put together who UnidosUS will hold accountable based on their platforms,” says Muñoz, noting that it’s also difficult to know how the state will fund public education.

Arizona

Elected officials in Arizona will begin their terms trying to figure out how to keep schools going when funding for them ranks lowest in the nation. Incumbent Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, defeated Democratic challenger David Garcia by relying on 20X2020, a campaign he launched during his first term to give Arizona teachers a 20% raise by 2020, and fully restore recession-era cuts of $371 million in funding for District Additional Assistance and Charter Additional Assistance.

Under Ducey’s plan, when teachers start, average salaries will increase from $48,372 to $52,725, and by 2021, average teacher salaries would be around $58,130. To get there, he’ll need $274 million for teacher pay just for next year.

“This remains to be seen. His administration has been focused on tax cuts and expanding education school choice voucher program. Recently the Arizona Supreme Court, with many of Ducey’s appointees, struck down a ballot measure to create an income tax for a much-needed sustainable source of funding for education,” says Kozlak.

On Wednesday, Kathy Hoffman was announced the winner of Arizona’s race for superintendent of public instruction, the state’s highest education post. She beat Republican Frank Riggs by 50,000 votes.

Hoffman has prior experience working in public schools and on early childhood education curriculum, and dedicated her research at University of Arizona to speech-language pathology with a specialization in bilingual children’s speech and language development. She favors a repeal of Arizona’s structured English language immersion block with a push for dual-language learning.

“In Arizona’s schools, 91,000 EL [English learner] students are forced to sit in classes that are taught in a language they do not understand without any support in their primary language, she wrote in a 2017 op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star. “These students are consequently left with marginal skills in their first language and, as research shows, less-developed English skills as well. As a result, EL students are not keeping up in classrooms across the state.”

Finally, on Thursday, Maricopa County’s Democrat Katie Hobbs had a 13,200-vote lead over Republican Steve Gaynor for Arizona secretary of state. A win for Hobbs could be a major victory for Democrats, since none have held that seat since 1995. This seat is a significant one for Arizona and the country, as it will have authority over the state’s voting laws and regulations. UnidosUS and many other stakeholders anticipate Arizona will become an important battleground state nationally given its shifting demographics and growing, youth-filled Latino population.

Florida

Florida continues to sort votes in a hotly contested Senate race between incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott and Democratic candidate Bill Nelson, and the equally polemic gubernatorial race between Republican candidate Ron DeSantis and Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum. On election night last week, Gillum conceded to DeSantis, but on Saturday, he rescinded that concession after learning there were still uncounted votes for governor throughout the state.

During the campaigns, Gillum had proposed raising the state corporate income rate from 5.5% to 7.75%and starting teacher pay across the state at $50,000. DeSantis said he would cut “bureaucracy and bloat” in order to put more money into the classroom, offer teachers merit pay, and require that districts put 80% of their money into the classrooms.

Meanwhile, Floridians passed Amendment 5, which prohibits the legislature from raising state taxes without a two-thirds vote in the state legislature. That could significantly impact equity in Florida schools, which rank 45th in the nation for funding.

“If we can’t increase the state’s investment in education with a simple majority, how are we going to have actual teachers here?” asks Jared Nordlund, UnidosUS’s Senior Strategist for Florida. “The cost of living is too high and they’re going to leave the profession, which they’re doing right now, either that or moving to a state where they can make more money.”

 While UnidosUS’s Florida education team hones its post-midterm election strategy, it is also reaching out to the community to discuss concerns around the state’s ESSA plan, which was approved just two months ago.

On Tuesday, UnidosUS presented a one-day workshop about ESSA at University of Miami, along with education advocacy groups such as the United Way of Miami, the Children’s Movement, National Urban League of Miami, and representatives of several local colleges. At the event, UnidosUS presented a 15-page white paperabout Florida’s ESSA plan, its potential impact on Latinos and English Language learners, and recommendations for how to stay informed and advocate for more accountability from the Florida State Board of Education.

The event also featured a data visualization project created by VizUM, a group of students from University of Miami’s Center for Computational Science. The students created a GSI map illustrating where English language learners are concentrated throughout Miami-Dade County, and then discussed the prospects of replicating it in Tampa and Orlando.

“This is the first of several papers about how state education policies are affecting Latino kids in schools. We hope these papers, and the events in which they are presented, can serve as an important resource for local advocates and leaders teaching the community how to engage elected officials and education decisionmakers about the importance of fairness and equal access to educational opportunity in public schools,” says Eric Rodriguez, UnidosUS Vice President of Policy & Advocacy, and head of the organization’s Education Policy Project.

-Author Julienne Gage is the senior web content manager for Progress Report. 

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