Education Week on December 3, 2012
by Alyson Klein
College access and immigration issues may leap-frog high on Washington policymakers’ postelection to-do lists, thanks to the critical role that the Latino and youth vote played in helping President Barack Obama secure both the national popular vote and majorities in key swing states in winning re-election.
Advocates for young voters want lawmakers to make funding for college financial aid—including student loans and Pell Grants for low-income students—a priority as they try to cope with the“fiscal cliff,” the automatic spending cuts and rise in taxes set to go into effect early next year unless Congress and the administration are able to come up with a way to avert them. Advocates also are hoping that policymakers can shore up the Pell Grant program, which faces a $7 billion shortfall, and act to avert a planned rise in student-lending interest rates.
For their part, Latino activists want to see comprehensive immigration reform, along with a renewed focus on the needs of English-language learners, minority students, and other special populations in discussion of the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Seventy-five percent of Latino voters supported Mr. Obama, compared with 23 percent for his Republican opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, according to a poll of 5,600 Latino voters conducted Nov. 2-5, on the eve of the presidential election, by ImpreMedia and Latino Decisions, a polling firm based in Seattle. Such voters proved important in critical states won by Mr. Obama, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. In fact, if 35 percent of Latinos had voted for Mr. Romney, the president would not have won the popular vote nationally, according to the poll.
In the survey, Latinos ranked education as the third-most-important national issue, behind only the economy and immigration. That ranking could strengthen the hand of Latino groups when it comes to negotiating the renewal of the ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act, said Raul González, the director of the education policy project at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group based in Washington.
“We hope they listened and paid attention to what happened on Election Day,” he said, referring to both Congress and the president. “We would hope that they don’t start with last year’s bills. … We cannot go back to the community and say we support a bill where you cannot easily find Hispanic and ELL kids and [understand] how their needs are going to be addressed.”
Mr. González and other advocates for Latinos expressed concern with the direction of the ESEA-reauthorization discussions in Congress after both the House and Senate education committees approved bills that would have given states and districts much more leeway in setting goals for students in particular subgroups, including English-learners, disadvantaged students, and members of racial and ethnic minorities. The bills would also have largely left it up to states to decide how—and whether—to intervene in schools that missed the mark for those populations.
‘The Fight for 2013’
Immigration is also poised to take center stage in the next session of Congress with many advocates pushing for legislation that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already living in the United States.
“We feel strongly that this will be the fight for 2013,” said Lorella Praeli, the director of advocacy and policy for the United We Dream Network, a leadership-training and advocacy organization, which has offices in New York City and Washington.
President Obama listed immigration as a top priority in his first postelection press conference.
“I predicted that the Latino vote was going to be strong, and that that would cause some reflection on the part of Republicans about their position on immigration reform,” Mr. Obama said at the Nov. 14 session. “My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration.”
Advocates are aiming to incorporate the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, into broader immigration legislation. The DREAM measure, which has bipartisan backing, would allow young people who came to the United States as children to move toward citizenship by enrolling in postsecondary education or joining the military.
Congress has tried, but failed, to approve the legislation, most recently in 2010, chiefly because of lack of support among conservative members. In the meantime, the administration has allowed undocumented adults under age 31 who came to the United States as children to apply for a limited, temporary legal status.
Two GOP senators—Sens. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Jon Kyl of Arizona—introduced a more limited bill last month, which would essentially allow some young adults to apply for temporary legal status if they enroll in postsecondary education.
The DREAM Act could be passed as stand-alone legislation if Congress is unable to reach a consensus on a broader immigration bill, but advocates say they would strongly prefer comprehensive legislation.
During the campaign, Mr. Romney tried to woo Hispanic voters by talking about his plans to expand school choice. But that policy alone isn’t going to be enough for Republicans to sway the expanding Latino electorate, Mr. González of La Raza said.
“I think school choice is something that, depending on how you ask the question, will get a lot of support from the Hispanic community,” he said. But he added that his organization doesn’t see it as the solution for all students stuck in underperforming schools.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, can expect some renewed scrutiny from 18- to 29-year-old voters, another group that proved important in the president’s re-election tally. If half of voters under 30 had stayed home, or had chosen Mr. Romney, the GOP nominee would have won Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia—and the presidency, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or circle, a research organization based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
It appears that the administration already is interested in getting input from advocates for young voters as it tries to come up with a solution to the nation’s long-term deficit problems.
Aaron Smith, the co-founder and executive director of the Young Invincibles, a Washington-based group that works on behalf of young voters, was one of a handful of advocates who met with President Obama last month to discuss priorities for the fiscal-cliff negotiations with Congress.
While the importance of young voters has received a lot of attention, Mr. Smith said he’s watching to see whether Congress and the administration make college access a priority as they try to cope with long-term spending and tax issues.
“The proof … is [whether] Congress is able to take action,” he said. “Young people are going to be really engaged going forward. There’s an opportunity to make some noise and have a real impact on these issues.”
Mr. Smith and other advocates are urging Mr. Obama to fix the structural deficit in the Pell Grant program. They want Congress to extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which offers a tax break to help cover college tuition. They also want to see funding for other college-access programs—such as work-study, which helps students cover the cost of higher education through campus-based or other employment—protected in any long-term deficit deal.
And spokespersons for young voters also want lawmakers to come up with a long-term solution for problems with the Stafford Loan program. Interest rates on student loans are set to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, next summer unless Congress comes up with legislation to extend the current rate.
One encouraging signal, according to Toby Van Ostren, the deputy director of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress, a national organization in Washington that works with young people to promote progressive policies: Lawmakers have already approved a temporary extension of student-lending rates at current levels, a policy that both parties supported.
“I saw that as the first sign,” said Mr. Van Ostren, who also served as the national director for Students for Obama in 2008. “A lot more elected officials are paying attention to younger voters.”