Politics & Policy

The Education Vote

Hispanics saw that Republicans deliver results.

Continued strong electoral gains among Hispanics was one of the most impressive parts of the Republican victory this presidential cycle. Despite recent controversy over precisely how much of the Hispanic vote went to Bush, either way you slice the data it shows strong movement towards the GOP. Compared to 2000, between 40-44 percent of Hispanics voted to reelect Bush this year, (up from 35 percent in 2000). GOP strides among these voters are even more striking looking back a little further. In less than a decade, Republicans nearly doubled their share of the Hispanic vote, from 21 percent in 1996 to 40-44 percent in 2004 (depending on which estimate you use).

Given demographic trends, Republican inroads into this traditionally Democratic bastion have major political implications. The Pew Hispanic Center in July 2004 reported that “the Hispanic electorate is growing much faster than the Non-Hispanic electorate. Between the 2000 vote and the election this November, the number of eligible Latino voters will have increased by about 20 percent to 16 million people. The rate of increase is about six times faster than for the non-Hispanics” (emphasis added). Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told the Washington Post recently that the president’s increased share of the Hispanic vote was “the single most important number that has come out of the election.”

Republican strides are due to numerous factors. Hispanic voters, like other Americans, care deeply about family values, jobs, the economy, and fighting the war on terrorism. Yet survey data also demonstrates that Latino voters are disproportionately concerned about one issue above others: education.

House Education and Workforce chairman John Boehner of Ohio told me last week that he believes the Republican message resonated particularly well with Hispanics this election cycle. “Education is definitely a big part of that mix,” says Boehner.

The Pew study reinforces Boehner’s beliefs: “Hispanic registered voters are far more concerned about education than the general public, ranking it as their number one issue.”

So it should come as no surprise that greater Republican emphasis on education over the past four years has paid electoral dividends. President Bush’s leadership on the No Child Left Behind Act signaled to Hispanics that Republicans could not only talk a good game about education, but also deliver results that improved accountability, standards, and outcomes.

Looking ahead, Republicans have opportunities to continue demonstrating a commitment to education and winning a greater share of the Latino vote. Two major education measures are on tap for next year, both with significant implications for preparing students for high-quality jobs of the future: The Vocational and Technical Education for the Future Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization bill.

Writing a new narrative in the education debate means building on the last four years, providing lawmakers with the rhetoric and policies to continue to make inroads into this historically Democratic issue. As Boehner puts it, “These two bills are the next logical steps in our ongoing efforts to strengthen and reform education in America.”

Republicans clearly see the linkages between improving vocational education and jobs. President Bush also made the connection in this year’s presidential debates, arguing the economy/jobs/education nexus. It’s clear that training workers for high-quality jobs starts with the right kind of skill and job training in high schools and colleges. Vocational education is a part of that equation and Hispanics are large consumers of those services. “Vocational and technical education plays a critical role in America’s secondary and postsecondary education systems. It’s a fundamental part of our efforts to improve education at all levels so America can continue to be competitive as our education and workplace systems evolve,” says Boehner.

The major federal statute for vocational education is the Perkins Vocational Education Act, which has not been substantially changed since it first passed in 1917–despite the dramatic transformations in the industrial and information economies. Congress ran out of time this year, but will take another crack at it in 2005.

Current reform ideas include adding broader emphasis on math and science education and encouraging mentoring programs aimed at providing job-related skills for the 21st-century worker. The reauthorization will also focus on the needs of special populations like displaced rust-belt workers. Hispanic students will be among the primary beneficiaries of these programs, aimed at educating well-rounded workers, able to secure high-skilled, high-wage jobs.

Republicans will address the Higher Education Reauthorization Act in broad terms and look for ways to benefit a range of institutions, not just four-year colleges and universities. This more expansive view of what constitutes “higher education” should also appeal to Hispanics. Hispanics, for example, attend two-year institutions at a higher rate than any other group, and are major consumers of the offerings of technical and proprietary institutions, a part of the reauthorization efforts Republicans won’t neglect.

Over the past four years President Bush and his allies in Congress have transformed the politics of education in this country. Republicans have made great strides in appealing to voters on a platform of accountability, standards, and closing the achievement gap among minority students.

Hispanics recognize that quality education is stepping stone to prosperity and success for themselves and their families. Particularly for those new to this country, it’s a bridge to the American Dream. Next year Republicans have the opportunity to expand their new education narrative on measures directly related to jobs and careers. Greater Republican emphasis on the education issue over the past several years has not only improved this country’s schools, but it has also provided political dividends from the recipients of a better educational system–an electoral demographic shift that could affect American politics for generations.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.

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