Will Californians Become Education Voters? UnidosUS Hopes the Midterms Will Show That

A recent poll conducted in conjunction with UnidosUS and The Education Trust-West shows that nine out of 10 Black and Latino parents of students in California say they are very likely to offer feedback to their child’s school and that seven out of 10 feel comfortable pushing that school to make changes. Now, UnidosUS’s education team is hopeful these same parents—as well as students of voting age—will show that kind of energy and concern about education when they cast their ballots next month. They say their votes could set a precedent for a rapidly diversifying K–12 population all across the nation.

“We believe many of these parents are what we call ‘education voters.’ For years, they have seen the impact of parent trainings on education data. As they become more knowledgeable about the way their child is faring in the state’s public school system, they know they have the power to be a voice and advocate on behalf of themselves, their children, and their community,” says Callie Kozlak, who manages UnidosUS’s education policy. It’s her job to monitor education policies across the nation that affect Latinos, who currently account for one-quarter of the U.S. youth population under the age of 18 and will account for one-third of that population over the next 20 years.

“California is an important state to be exploring this dynamic because it has 3.3 million Latino residents. They represent 54% of the state’s public school population and make up the vast majority of the state’s 1.3 million English language learners,” she says, explaining that California’s next governor, lieutenant governor, and state superintendent of public instruction will determine what academic programs and student populations are a priority.

UnidosUS has spent the past year focusing heavily on the education issues that are of greatest concern for Latino families. Partnering with 52 Affiliate organizations in California, UnidosUS has coordinated advocacy efforts aimed at understanding how to rank and assess a school’s performance, push public officials to expand opportunities for higher education, bolster support for early childhood education initiatives, improve the learning experience for English language learners, and ensure protections for immigrant students. Federal law guarantees all students the right to public education, regardless of their legal status, and it bars immigration authorities from detaining immigrant children on school grounds.

“This diverse array of programs empowers Latino families and students to exercise their right to equal access to a quality education, and to do so without fear. We want them to become big players in the civic engagement arena. Our advocacy efforts have already led to some significant legislative gains, so we are excited to see what comes as a result of the mid-term elections, says UnidosUS California Education Organizer Genesie Muñoz.

Trends in Progressive Education Policy

 UnidosUS welcomes California’s trends toward more bilingual and multilingual education. For example, State Superintendent Tom Toralkson has sponsored The Global California 2030 Initiative to the teaching of expand world languages.  Under this newly approved initiative, all California students would be proficient in at least two languages in the next 12 years.

Meanwhile, UnidosUS has worked alongside its California affiliates and Education Equity partners to advocate for the development of the following policies and legislation:

  • The English Learner Roadmap: This policy provides public schools with resources for welcoming, understanding, and educating California’s diverse population of English learners.
  • AB 2735: On September 7, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2735, a bill sponsored by Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell that prohibits English learner students from being denied enrollment in core curriculum courses, including those required for high school graduation and for the purposes of advanced placement and college admission.
  • AB 2514: Sponsored by Assembly Member Tony Thurmond, this bill would provide up to $300,000 in grants to a public school or county educational office hoping to expand or initiate dual language curriculum.

Early Childhood Education 

These gains should help foster support for dual language learning at the early education level, a crucial age for children’s speech and language development, says Muñoz. In fact, it might help change perceptions about English language learners as having a learning deficit.

“Historically, English Learners have been stigmatized by the unscientific view that their home language is a liability. Too often, parents and children have been told to give up their home language in favor of English only. Unfortunately, this advice is actually counter-productive,” explains Muñoz citing the study Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures from The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine. The study looks at the assets of dual language and English language learners and the factors that support or hinder their educational success.

“There is no evidence to indicate that the use of two languages in the home or the use of one in the home and another in early care and education setting confuses dual language learners or puts the development of one or both of their languages at risk,” the report says. “Given adequate exposure to two languages, young children have the capacity to develop competence in vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics in both (languages,” the report states.

Leveraging Data for School Advocacy

A participant of UnidosUS pilot program Leveraging School Data for Advocacy tracks performance of a local elementary school.

These new educational policies may also lead to changes in the ways schools rank performance. UnidosUS already has programs aimed at helping parents follow along. In September, UnidosUS worked with the local affiliate of the school ranking program GreatSchools to present Leveraging Data for School Advocacy, a workshop that brought together parents and parent advocates from 11 Los Angeles-based Affiliates to learn how to use school ranking tools available from both the state of California and GreatSchools.

“Sometimes parents have doubts and concerns but don’t know exactly where to go for help, how to ask for what they want, or what it is they actually need,” says Cruscita Sanchez, who came as both a mother and as a member of the executive policy board for the UnidosUS Affiliate Mexican American Opportunity Fund (MAOF).

“This data teaches us that we need to be more strategic,” she says. “Maybe teachers lack the resources or maybe they just aren’t taking the initiative to work with what they have. There are lots of things that could be done to address this, but we parents have to be involved.”

Campaign for College Opportunity 

California has long been a major player in both the US and the global economy, but experts say 60 percent of its workforce will need degrees by 2030 to maintain that status. To do so, the state will need to close its achievement gaps for its minority students, especially Latinos, who make up more than 50 percent of the K-12 population. As such, UnidosUS has recently partnered with the non-profit organization Campaign for College Opportunity to push college leaders and elected officials to adapt policies that will better prepare high school students for college, increase college enrollment, improve college graduation rates, and make college affordable for middle and low-income families.

As part of this push, the Campaign recently released a 2018 California Higher Education Report Card which gave the state a C on its current progress. It showed that 82% of Latino adults in the state do not have a college degree, while only 34% of Latino high school students have received a college-ready curriculum by the time they graduate, and just 41.6% have the support they need to enroll in college. And while Latinos represent 43% of California’s college population, just 18% of Latino college students actually earn a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, compared to 52% among white college students.

“The stakes are high and we can no longer do business as usual. If we want our state to grow jobs, the next governor must put forth a bold new vision for higher education, one that invests in key metrics for accountability that expand college access and achieves the 60% degree attainment goal,” says Rob Lapsley, President of the California Business Roundtable.

His organization is among more than 40 business, civil rights, and educational groups to endorse a blueprint to help the governor to the following:

  • Implement policies for improving transfer rates, reforming remedial education, providing supports for adult learners, and funding for enrollment
  • Create a data system for detecting and removing roadblocks to student success
  • Establish a central coordinating body for higher education

“California’s candidates for governor are rightfully concerned about the economic future of the state. The best insurance we have for a brighter tomorrow is a college education for more Californians,” Campaign for College Opportunity President Michele Siqueiros. “We urge (the next governor) to adopt these goals and take the necessary steps to ensure that we reach them. We won’t rest until every child in California has the ability to access and succeed in college. Our state’s economy depends on it.”

Protecting Immigrant Students

The federal government requires that all students in the United States have equal access to an education, regardless of their legal status. But the current climate of fear spurred by hardline immigration policies—including the detention of migrant children and the deportation of their families—creates an enormous barrier.

“We know the current climate is causing incredible trauma and stress for students, especially those who are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented,” says Muñoz. “This has devastating impacts on their health, and in the school context, it can the impair their learning or lead to chronic absenteeism.”

As a result, UnidosUS has been working closely with its Affiliates and with policymakers to make California, a state with an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants, a safe and welcoming place for learning. Under the Safe Havens Initiative, California currently has more than 100 school districts marked as sanctuary spaces. These schools and educational offices have agreed to take measures to protect undocumented students from being intercepted by immigration agents on their campuses, as well as building out curriculum to ease fears and trauma surrounding the current political climate and ensuring that all students and parents know their legal rights.

“Bottom line, we know California residents have a lot to gain from advocacy efforts like these, and we hope voters reflect that at the polls,” affirms Kozlak. “As a national Latino civil rights organization, we’re also depending on California to help inform our approach to policy and programming at the federal level and in other states that have rapidly diversifying K–12 populations.”

-Author Julienne Gage is the Senior Web Content Manager for Progress Report. 

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