Representation (or lack thereof) is a white-hot issue in modern America. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and then Great Recession, the deficiencies of political representation screamed through public discourse. Two social movements—the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—are often-discussed byproducts of that turbulent time. I know it’s not a sexy term, but the concept of “representation” provided the lifeblood of both movements.
Over the last five years, curiously enough, these “representation movements” did not seem to spur equally contagious protests and momentum for better representation in K–12 education.
“Parent trigger” movements have emerged since 2009. Generally, a parent trigger puts school boards and central offices on notice to improve a given public school in a certain amount of time. If improvements don’t occur, the trigger gets pulled, and parents may then send their children to another public school. Parent trigger examples tend to be isolated, however, and lawsuits and bureaucratic maneuvers are stalling them.
How well do politicians and bureaucrats represent families and taxpayers in K–12? Do they act mostly on the behalf of their constituents’ direct interests, or do they proceed mostly according to the whims of elites or their own self-interest? Does the classic tension between the delegate model (where representatives do what people want) and trustee model (where representatives do what they think is good for their constituents whether those constituents agree or not) still exist, or has representation become more complex over time?
Recent polling put a spotlight on a demographic group that does not have sufficient representation within K-12: Latinos. Some high-profile Hispanic interest groups neglect what the majorities in their communities want out of education. First, let’s look at what Hispanics want from education policy. Then we’ll look at what some of the purported advocates demand instead.
What Latinos Want from K–12 Education
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, where I work, has for a number of years reported public opinion on a range of K–12 education policies, particularly those that expand choice in K-12 education. We recently released a report, “Latino Perspectives on K-12 Education & School Choice,” to focus on the educational preferences of the Latino community. The findings suggest a kind of “twist” within the results and imply a “shout” for better representation in K–12.
At first blush, we see Latinos’ views align to some degree with establishment institutions and policies: they are slightly less pessimistic about the direction of K–12 education in the country; support increased spending for education; support centralized standards like Common Core; and about half of respondents gave positive grades to local public schools.
With those results, in contrast to national averages, one would think that Latinos might be less inclined to support, or even more likely to oppose, school choice reforms. But, looking at further survey results, we begin to see the twist.
When we ask respondents to grade their local district schools, we also ask them to grade local private and charter schools. There we begin to pick up signals from Latinos about the attractiveness of other types of schools. High levels of positive ratings show that Latinos, like the rest of the country, value having other types of schools in their communities. Sixty-eight percent of Latinos and 63 percent of the national survey respondents gave A or B grades to local charter schools. Eighty-three percent of both gave A or B grades to local private schools.
We also asked, “What type of school would you select in order to obtain the best education for your child?” The response showed that, like Americans generally, there’s a huge disconnect between Latinos’ school enrollment patterns and what they say they would prefer.
While 67 percent of Latino respondents told us they would like to send their child to a school other than a regular public school, nine out of 10 Latino students are in district schools! Of our Latino respondents, 46 percent said they prefer a private school, while only 4 percent of Latino students attend private schools. Twelve percent would prefer public charter schools, but roughly 5 percent actually attend charters. Nine percent pointed to homeschooling, but it’s estimated less than 1 percent actually go that route for providing an education.
Latinos Twist from the Narrative and Shout for Choice
At first glance, Latinos’ views seem to imply they are less likely to support school choice reforms. But, based on our polling results, Latinos also see value in other types of schools, such as private schools and public charter schools. In their eyes, the default neighborhood public school ought not to be the only game in town. That is the twist.
Okay, so where is the “shout” I mentioned earlier? From our poll, it is clear that when given definitions and context, Latinos overwhelmingly support school choice concepts and reforms. While 61 percent of Americans support school vouchers, 71 percent of Latinos do. While 62 percent of Americans support education savings accounts (ESAs), 73 percent of Latinos do.
ESAs give parents their child’s state education dollars in a government-audited account, which affords families with a debit card they can use for private school tuition, purchase curriculum materials, pay tutors or therapists, enroll their children in individual classes (online ones, too), and even save for college.
The twist becomes a shout: Latinos stand out among other demographics for supporting vouchers, ESAs, tax-credit scholarships, and charter schools at reliably high levels and large margins.
Who Represents What Latinos Want?
This raises the following question: How well are our public leaders and organizations representing the average Latino in K–12 education, especially on school choice issues? For that matter, how well do Latino-labeled advocacy organizations represent the expressed desires of those they claim to represent?
Here’s the policy platform of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC): “LULAC strongly opposes vouchers and any other funding method that will limit public education resources.” In 2011, Christian Estevez of the Latino Action Network opposed a voucher proposal, saying: “The Latino Action Network opposes the publicly funded voucher bill because we see it as a big gimmick that benefits corporate interests that would do nothing to help poor children stuck in failing school districts. Not one penny of corporate money would fund the scholarships established by this misguided legislation.”
In recent years, effective organizations and public officials have emerged that represent Latinos well on matters relating to choice in K–12 education. Some leading organizations include the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and the Libre Initiative. Earlier this year, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic in a state that is more than one-quarter Hispanic, signed the most sweeping school choice legislation ever to emerge out of a statehouse—a nearly universal ESA open to more than 90 percent of the state’s K–12 student population.
These new leaders reflect a departure from establishment-aligned organizations and individuals. Look up these groups, and Nevada’s historic movement, to learn more about how Latinos are advancing choice in K–12 education and leading their community toward better representation.