More than ever before, a quality education is the ladder to economic success. Students from families in the bottom fifth of income earners who graduate from college have a 19 percent chance of entering the top fifth of earners in adulthood, and a 62 percent chance of entering the middle class. A quality education is particularly important for Hispanics, who earn the lowest median wage of any racial or ethnic group. An average native-born Hispanic earns 84 percent of the average the U.S. weekly wage, while an average foreign-born Hispanic earns just 67 percent—and these gaps can be almost entirely explained by disparities in educational attainment.
Hispanic students face serious challenges as they make their way through the U.S. education system. Weak learning opportunities for Hispanics are the result of a lack of effective teachers in almost all school districts with high concentrations of Hispanic families, combined with inequities in school funding, larger schools and potential lack of cultural competency among teachers and administrators. These deficiencies are evident in the statistics—lower test scores, high drop out rates, and persistent limited English proficiency among the children of immigrants.
Addressing these problems in constructive and thoughtful ways is key to assuring success and opportunity for the fastest growing voting population in the United States. Hispanics know this. They consistently place “education” first on their list of voting issues. Ninety-five percent of Hispanic parents say it is “very important” that their children go to college, and 45 percent say the secondary school systems their children attend have improved over the last five years—higher than any other ethnic group—according to the results of the 2004 National Survey of Latinos, the most recent comprehensive survey of Hispanic views on education .
Such characteristic American optimism is also evident in the results of the survey when Hispanics are asked about the public education system: 63 percent of Hispanic parents give an “A” or a “B” to the public schools in their own community. These optimistic attitudes, however, are matched by Hispanics’ serious desire for action and change. A 2007 poll from the National Council of La Raza found that 89 percent of Hispanic voters said improving public education should be a "very important priority" for the next president. Half of those surveyed said they considered the quality of public schools in general to be "mediocre" or "poor," and they considered the high dropout rate to be "the greatest educational problem for the Latino community in the U.S."
Unfortunately, Sen. John McCain’s education proposals fail to meet the serious challenges Hispanics face in U.S. schools. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee supports voucher programs for secondary school education that would drain resources and attention from the large public schools that Hispanics disproportionately attend. His reckless tax cuts would endanger existing educational opportunities, such as Head Start and Pell grants, which work to close gaps in achievement and access to postsecondary education. And his past votes reveal an antipathy toward these programs.
To understand why McCain’s education plan fails to meet the needs of Hispanics we need to first examine exactly what the problems are for Hispanics in secondary and postsecondary education. Then we can detail why McCain’s policy proposals would prove to be a disaster for Hispanic families and their children striving to get the best education they can in order to participate in the American Dream.
The Testing Gap
A combination of disparities in income, language proficiency, and school quality has led to severe gaps in test scores between Hispanics and white students. The statistics are stark: 17-year-old Hispanics do math (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress) at the same level as white 13-year-olds. The results are identical for the NAEP reading test: 17-year-old Latinos are reading at the same level as 13-year-old whites.
For Limited English Proficiency students, or LEP students, (often also classified as “English Language Learners,” or ELL students under the No Child Left Behind Act), the gap with whites in early grades is even wider. Nearly half (46 percent) of ELL students in 4th grade scored “below basic,” the lowest possible level, in mathematics in 2005, compared to only 11 percent of white students. Almost three-quarters of ELL 4th graders (73 percent) scored “below basic” in reading, compared to only 25 percent of white 4th graders. By eighth grade, 71 percent of ELL students score “below basic” in both reading and math, compared with about 20 percent of whites.
Test scores early in the secondary education process reveal the eventual readiness of students to attend college, and are correlated with wage levels later in life. A 2006 Economic Report of the President, for example, found that students with higher test scores early in their education were “more likely to attend college.” And “controlling for individuals’ educational attainment and family background, those who score higher on achievement tests in high school have higher wages later in life.” However, a Manhattan Institute study that grappled with the often unreliable state data on high school graduation estimates that only 20 percent of Hispanic students who started public high school
“graduated college-ready in 2002.” This is an appallingly low percentage even if the margin of error is uncertain.
High School Drop-Out Rates
While drop out statistics are notoriously unreliable, few dispute that the high school drop out rate for Hispanics is troublingly high. A conservative estimate suggests that only 52 percent of Hispanic students graduate on time from high school with a regular diploma, compared with 55 percent of black students and 78 percent of whites. The consequences are disastrous. “Dropouts today are twice as likely to be unemployed, and for those who work, pay is low, advancement is limited, and health insurance is less available,” according to the study.
Limited English Proficiency
There are 8.5 million Latino students in U.S. public schools, with 2.8 million of them (32 percent) classified as Limited English Proficiency students. Troublingly, high rates of LEP are not confined to first-generation immigrants. As a recent Urban Institute study reveals, “three-fourths of all limited English proficient students in preschool through fifth grade, and half of these students in grades six through 12, are second and third generation citizens.”
This is not for lack of concern: Over 92 percent of Latinos say teaching English to the children of immigrants is a “very important goal,” the same rate as whites and African Americans. Instead, these language gaps persist due to low pre-K participation, a lack of high-quality bilingual programs and teachers, insufficient resources, and poor outreach to linguistically isolated communities.
The poorer and more insulated the community, the less able students are to learn English. Limited English proficiency correlates heavily with low-income families and struggling schools. As the Urban Institute showed, 68 percent of LEP students in pre-K-to-5th grade classes were from low-income families, or those with incomes below 185 percent of federal poverty level, as were 60 percent of LEP students in 6th-to-12th grade.
College Accessibility and Graduation Rates
Only 11 percent of adult Latinos in the United States have a college education, compared with 25 percent of the total adult population. The reasons for this gap? According to a longitudinal study of 25,000 students from 1988 to 2000 the reasons are myriad, among them: spiraling tuition costs; ill-prepared students; a tendency for Latinos to enroll in low-performing colleges with low B.A.-completion rates; and differing experiences on college campuses, which cause Latino college students to leave college before graduating more frequently than equally prepared white peers.
Costs are also a major problem. A study by Campaign for America’s Future found that the full cost for college at a four-year university now “consumes one third of the annual median household income for Hispanics compared to one-quarter of annual median household income for a non-Hispanic, white family.” When asked about the “major reasons” Latino students fail to attend or fail to graduate from college, 77 percent of Latino respondents to a Pew Hispanic Center & Kaiser Family Foundation poll identified “the cost of tuition” and “a need to work and earn money” as the two most important reasons; 58 percent said it was because many Latinos received a “poor high school education.”
A Broken Immigration System
Approximately 65,000 children of undocumented workers graduate from public high schools in the United States each year. Most of them speak only English, have lived here as long as they can remember, and yet are unable to pursue their dreams. The reason, as explained by a petition supporting the 2007 DREAM Act, is that “without legal status, doors to higher education, the workforce, and, ultimately, a full, productive future are closed to these students, even though they have lived most of their lives in the United States and have excelled at the same academic requirements as their classmates.”
Sen. McCain’s Record
Sen. McCain has made an effort to reach out to the Hispanic voters struggling with these educational challenges, but his record to date has been troublingly mixed. His web site offers no policy page addressing Hispanic issues in particular, and his education proposals have thus far been troublingly vague, relying heavily on generic rhetoric of “accountability” and “choice” with little explanation of specific changes he’d like to see.
McCain on Head Start
Head Start programs have been found to be successful in reducing the gap in test scores between Latino students and non-Hispanic whites. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that participation in Head Start programs “closes at least 1/4 of the gap” in the average Peabody cognitive test scores in reading and mathematics over time between Latino children and non-Hispanic white children, and “2/3 of the gap in the probability of grade repetition.” (Peabody tests—better known as PPVT, The PIAT Math test, and the PIAT Reading test—are administered periodically throughout a student’s K-through-12 grade schooling. The study predates the new accountability tests introduced with No Child Left Behind, but it’s likely the results would be analogous.)
Hispanic children make up 34 percent of all kids enrolled in Head Start. Nevertheless, Sen. McCain consistently voted against funding for the Head Start program, and he does not mention Head Start or early childhood education anywhere on his website.
Furthermore, his plan for a government spending freeze would allow inflation to cut funding for Head Start by over $968 million. And the massive deficits his tax plan would rack up could increase pressure for across-the-board cuts that would slash Head Start’s budget by an additional $1.6 billion, and drop over 170,000 children from the rolls.
McCain on Public Education
Hispanic students disproportionately attend large public high schools with crowded classes and strained resources, but instead of working to inject much-needed funds and innovation into the public school system, Sen. McCain has advocated tired and debunked conservative boilerplate on school vouchers. Unfortunately, he has consistently voted against resources for higher teacher quality, Hispanic drop-out prevention, and afterschool programs that improve student performance. He has also consistently undermined effective efforts at accountability by refusing to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act.
McCain on College Affordability
Federal Pell Grants have been called the “first course of action for Hispanic students from low-income households.” Half of all Hispanics who attend four-year colleges receive Pell Grants to help pay for school, compared to 16 percent to 17 percent of whites, and 37 percent to 45 percent of African Americans. But Sen. McCain voted with the Bush Administration to cut the value of Pell Grants, and has consistently voted against expanding access or increasing their value.
McCain on Community Colleges & Vocational Education
The majority of Hispanic students in higher education are “enrolled in two-year institutions, while the majority of white, African American and Asian/Pacific Islander students are enrolled in four-year institutions.” Sen. McCain’s intentions seem good: On his website he says he “believes that we can strengthen community colleges and technical training.” But his actions suggest otherwise: He voted for cuts to vocational education funding, and voted against letting the value of Perkins loans (the “largest direct aid initiative to community colleges”) increase with college costs. Furthermore, his plan for a discretionary spending freeze would cut $1.7 billion from community learning centers, and $3.7 billion from career and technical education grants.
McCain on Bilingual Education
Here, Sen. McCain has made an impressive effort to provide federal support for ELL and LEP students. He voted to authorize $11.5 billion from 2003 to 2008 for bilingual programs. He has time and again expressed his support for these programs, saying in 1998: “I have always supported bilingual education programs to help students learn English. Proposals to restrict the use of languages other than English are always divisive.”
McCain on the DREAM Act
Sen.McCain skipped the vote for, and later denounced, a popular bill known as the DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for undocumented residents “under 30 years of age who were brought to the United States before the age of 16, graduated from high school, and either have completed or plan to complete two years of college or military service.” At the time, in the midst of the Republican presidential primary season, Sen. McCain explained his opposition saying, “I got the message and the American people want the borders controlled first.”
Sen. McCain’s education proposals fall far short of addressing the serious problems Hispanics face in U.S. schools. His support for vouchers would drain resources and attention from the large public high schools Hispanics disproportionately attend. His reckless tax cuts would endanger existing educational opportunities, such as Head Start and Pell grants, which work to close achievement gaps and provide access to a college education. And despite language to the contrary in speeches and on his website, his voting record reveals a callous indifference to school funding, public education, and college access. For too many Hispanics, struggling in U.S. schools, the American Dream could remain out of reach.