In this election season, both Republicans and Democrats continue to reach out to Latinos by focusing on immigration, the supposed priority issue for Latino voters. Candidates translate their key messages into Spanish, thinking that we like to hear our native language when we communicate with politicians.

Conventional wisdom holds that the party that can deliver immigration reform and communicate with the Latino community on their terms will secure their votes in the upcoming election. Several recent reports and polls are challenging these classic clichés about Latinos.

It is clear that immigration is not the first priority for Latino voters, as it is not for Irish Americans, Italian Americans or other population groups. We care about the economy, employment, finding jobs for our family members and of course education of our children. This fact has been confirmed once again in a survey released by the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO). Results from the survey of likely voters in five key battleground states reveal that education is a top-tier issue for Latino voters. Latinos ranked K-12 education as the second most important issue facing our country. While their responses were similar to the opinions of all voters, they favor improving education over reducing the budget deficit and place it second only to creating new jobs and improving the economy. 58 percent of Latinos agreed that, “We need to hear more from the presidential candidates on how they will improve education.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the party that can deliver immigration reform and communicate with the Latino community on their terms will secure their votes in the upcoming election. Several recent reports and polls are challenging these classic clichés about Latinos.

What may come as a surprise is Latino’s opinion about controversial reforms like charter schools and vouchers. Latinos are more likely than other voters to cite increasing education options for parents as core priorities. Survey responses indicate strong support in the Latino community for greater school choice and scholarships, also called vouchers. 65 percent of Latinos agreed that “choice and competition among schools improves education” and 57 percent support scholarships. An astonishing 91 percent of Latinos think vouchers and tax credit scholarships in some form should be available.

Teacher-based reforms are another area that received substantial support. 57 percent of Latinos say that providing higher teacher pay for higher performing teachers would definitely improve schools and 48 percent of Latinos feel that reforming “Last In, First Out” policies would improve schools.  

To those who follow education reform and Hispanic issues, this survey seems to confirm what we already knew. Yet, national politicians largely continue to focus on other issues, such as immigration. A statement from Romney campaign spokesman Albert Martínez emphasized how "President Obama broke his promise to Hispanics on immigration reform,” and RNC director of Hispanic outreach Bettina Inclan said, "The reality is this president has deported more Hispanics than any president in American history."

President Obama has done better, using a major Spanish-language ad buy to target Hispanics on the issue of education in Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. It’s a start, but while the campaign has spent $850,000 on education ads so far, that is a relatively small total of the $25 million in total that it has devoted to Spanish-language ads to promote the benefits of healthcare reform and Obama initiatives.”

Hispanics, just like other Americans, want our children to be well-educated and have the best chance at success. NAEP standardized testing results continue to show a significant achievement gap between Latino students and other students in the US. The Latino population lags behind the White population in each of the most important areas, such as reading and math levels.

Well-educated children are important to us and critical to helping the US remain competitive in the world. Until these shortcomings are addressed and real progress is made in reforming our education system, the education of our children will remain a top priority. Politicians would do well to pay attention.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this opinion piece did not include information on Obama campaign  Spanish-language radio and television ads touching on Latinos and education released in April 2012.]

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is the managing director at Blue Star Strategies, Washington, DC, where he focuses his expertise on Latin American and domestic related policy issues. Laura Agosta is a project manager for Formar Foundation, based in Washington, DC.

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