05/22/2012 09:45 am ET Updated May 22, 2012

Latino Voter Poll Draws Attention But May Distort Reality

When David Valladolid visits with parent groups in California, sits in on school board meetings in Minnesota or meets with the staff running his organization's educational programs in Texas, some concerns seem to come up repeatedly.

"I've been in many a auditorium where parents come in and talk about how between budget cuts and teacher layoffs their kids are learning with 40 kids in a classroom," said Valladolid, president and CEO of the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), a San Diego-based nonprofit that works to improve Latino college graduation rates. "I have heard parents talking about the buildings that are falling down, the AP courses that aren't being offered. And, a lot of people are really terrified about the college costs that just keep rising because states are cutting funding there too."

That list of concerns hasn't gone away or changed much as the presidential election has gained steam, he said. A new poll released last week by a pair of organizations that advocate for expanded school voucher and charter school options -- The American Federation for Children and Hispanic CREO -- seems to confirm that. For likely Latino voters in five states, jobs, the overall state of the economy and education top the list of political concerns, the poll found. Worries about the budget deficit are not far behind, according to the poll. And, immigration is simply not a political priority for most Latino voters.

The poll's findings garnered a mention on NPR, a story on The National Journal's web site, an op-ed on Fox News Latino and other stories and blogs last week. But a closer look at the survey and the organizations behind it shines a light on the potential downside of the intense interest both parties have in attracting Latino voters this year, several researchers and polling experts and contacted by The Huffington Post said. With increased interest come more frequent attempts to shape the views of the Latino electorate and, some say, distort and exploit Latino voter priorities.

"We're the it vote, the group that everybody is talking about right now," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a San Antonio-based organization that researches Latino and other minority voters. "In the old days we'd get ignored. But now, there's all kind of charlatans out there saying they represent the Latino vote, they understand the Latino vote, they have the analysis to show [what] Latino voters really care about. Then they slap a label on it and get all sorts of attention for their issue too."

Latinos represent the nation's largest minority group, one of the fastest growing segments of the population and an electorate that the most optimistic projections place around 12 million voters this year. In states such as California, Latino population growth is changing the make up of the nation's most populous state. In Texas and Florida, Latino population growth has given each new Congressional seats. And both the Obama and Romney campaigns are actively courting Latino voters.

The poll surveyed 750 likely voters living in New Jersey, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada between April 17 and April 22. Pollsters managed to reach 117 self-identified Latino likely voters in those states by calling home phones and mobiles lines and asking questions in both English and Spanish.

The study found that 73 percent of Latino likely voters described creating jobs and improving the state of the economy as their top political concern. About 61 of Latino voters described the need to improve education as a political priority. Nearly 60 percent of Latinos polled wanted to hear more from the presidential candidates on education.

Those findings are not dramatically different than others released earlier this year. But where the poll differed is that it also found that 91 percent of Latinos thought access to vouchers and tax credits that cover private school costs should be available. Another 65 percent of likely Latino voters said "choice and competition" improve schools, the study found.

The individuals surveyed were asked about vouchers, private and charter-school scholarships directly financed with money that would otherwise go to public schools and tax credits to cover school tuition. Then, survey respondents were given what American Federation for Children spokesman Malcom Glenn described as positive and negative information about school choice. Afterwards, when pollsters asked additional questions about vouchers, scholarships and other policies that facilitate school choice, support went up among Latino voters.

"There are popular notions about who is a part of our coalition, who cares about and wants school choice and competition," said Glenn, who is also a HuffPost blogger. "But if you look at the overwhelming support for school choice -- 62 percent of Latinos in our sample are Obama voters -- these are people that it would be tough to characterize as right wing voters."

The American Federation for Children worked with Hispanic CREO to commission the poll because education, and in particular school choice, have not received the attention from the presidential candidates that they deserve, Glenn said.

Gonzalez, president and lead researcher at The Velazquez Institute, questions the poll's findings. The poll focuses on voters in four swing states and New Jersey, said Gonzalez, also a HuffPost blogger. New Jersey happens to be a state where the legislature is considering the idea of expanding access to charter and private school with funds redirected from traditional public schools. Together, the five states are home to just 20 percent of the nation's Latino voters, according to Gonzalez.

"You can't say this represents the Latino view," he said. "You can't say it reflects Latino opinion nationally. All you can say scientifically is that this poll reflects, with some carefully crafted questions, the opinions of Latinos living in this collection of states. That's a lot of qualifications."

The poll also describes vouchers as "opportunity scholarships," Gonzalez added, and seems carefully designed to emphasize the upsides of public funding for private school tuition and expanded access to charter schools.

"What parent do you know, what person do you know who is opposed to scholarships?" Gonzalez said. "That's some very clever wording."

Hispanic CREO did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Both The American Federation for Children and Hispanic CREO have strong funding and ideological ties to organizations that have worked to expand access to private school vouchers, charter schools and to reduce the influence of often union-represented public school teachers in states around the country, said Brendan Fischer, a law fellow at the The Center for Media and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. The Walton Foundation, the DeVos Foundation and the Bradley Foundation have all contributed heavily to Hispanic CREO, according to reports filed by each of the organizations with the IRS, Fischer said.

The American Federation for Children began in the 1990s in Milwaukee, where it operated under the name American Education Reform Foundation. It helped to push state officials to create one of the nation's first comprehensive school voucher programs, open to most children living in the Milwaukee area, Fischer said. The organization has since expanded its work to other parts of the country and relocated its headquarters to the Washington, D.C., area. It has also begun contributing to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to both Glenn and Fischer.

ALEC, a lobbying organization, has been the focus of national attention this year after bills that ALEC's mostly corporate members helped to prompt in part led lawmakers to put in place strict voter ID policies. Opponents of the policies say they will make it difficult, if not impossible, for some young, low-income, elderly and minority voters to participate in the November election. Up until April, ALEC had also been a driving force behind so-called stand your ground laws. ALEC has worked with the American Federation for Children to draft several bills that expand access to vouchers and charter schools in states across the country, according to Fischer.

Despite the polling organizations' ties and involvement in expanding voucher access, Valladolid, the CEO of PIQE, said he hasn't heard many parents say that the fix they want for education involves vouchers.

"What I hear more often is concern about resources or funding for public schools," Valladolid said, "rather than the notion of school choice, vouchers and what have you."