05/17/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

The Presidential Campaign And Latino Education

Now that Governor Mitt Romney has essentially locked up the GOP nomination, a new presidential campaign season has begun. This election year, Latinos will be a major political target for both candidates. Republican and Democrats will tout the importance of Latinos, highlight values that appeal to this group, explain how their economic plans will help to generate jobs and even touch on the sensitive immigration issue. However, Latino education is rarely a campaign issue and neither party would have much to show in terms of concrete results in this area.

The achievement gap between Hispanics and other ethnic groups in standardized testing and overall education is significant. The U.S. Department of Education found that the average SAT scores of Latinos lag behind the U.S. average by 100 points. Additionally, 13.9 percent of the Latino population holds a bachelor's degree, whereas 29.9 percent of the total U.S. population does.

The reasons for this are related not only to lackluster education policies, but also to other factors such as poverty, language skills and school attendance. The 2010 Census found that 35 percent of Latinos were living in poverty, compared to 12.4 percent of Caucasians; Latinos typically attend schools where a higher percentage of students speak English as a second language, making instruction more cumbersome. In addition, Latinos drop out of high school at a 17.6 percent rate, compared to the 8.1 percent rate of the entire U.S. population.

But what does this mean electorally? Presidents have been courting Latinos for decades. Some have seen solid results, like President Clinton in 1996, when he received 73 percent of the Latino vote, or even President George W. Bush, earning 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. Concrete proposals and reforms related to improved education for Latinos have not been major campaign issues, but presidents have focused on them while in office.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush started the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, intended to advise the Department of Education on ways to improve Latino education and college attendance. It produced a 1992 report that neither generated much awareness nor led to the implementation of specific policies, but was important because it set a precedent that every president after Bush followed.

President Clinton continued the initiative, which published two reports and also spearheaded concrete important policies that followed. Among them was the $600 million Hispanic Education Action Plan, designed to help students master basic skills and become proficient in English; an 11 percent funding increase for public institutions of higher learning that had at least 25 percent Latino enrollment; and a 35 percent increase in bilingual and immigrant education within the Balanced Budget Agreement that taught English to more than one million students and offered 4,000 teachers additional training needed to address challenges frequently seen in Latino-heavy schools.

Mirroring the previous administration, the initiative under President George W. Bush published two reports. The White House convened a number of conferences on Latino education and created the Partnership for Hispanic Family Learning, a network of organizations across different sectors that supported families in preparing their children for success in the classroom. The initiative also formed a working group with the American Competitiveness Initiative to address the needs, strengths and capabilities of Hispanic-serving institutions of higher learning. There were new spaces to discuss and create awareness, but not many specific policies.

President Obama received 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008 and according to a FOX News Latino poll that was published recently, 70 percent of Latinos favor Obama this November, compared to the 14 percent of Latinos who prefer Romney. Obama has continued the initiative, but has not yet committed the kind of attention to Latino education that his predecessors did. In 2009, his administration convened a 35-city listening tour to explore the education needs of Latino communities, but little substance other than the typical calls to action have emerged. Obama's Race to the Top program--a $4.35 billion initiative that incentivizes states to innovate and spur education reform--has so far failed to reach the six states with the largest Latino student population. However, the president has earmarked $900 million in grants to the country's bottom 5 percent of schools, many of which had a high Latino population.

Today, despite various administrations' focus on Latino education, achievement in education is still low. Issues such as immigration and jobs may overshadow education achievement during the presidential candidates' outreach to Latinos. However, at a time when U.S. students are being outperformed by their global peers and Latino K-12 enrollment will increase by 25 percent each year between now and 2020, trends in Latino education are also trends in education for all U.S. students. Producing an under-educated generation of students makes for a weak country. Perhaps that is what Obama and Romney should be addressing.