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Op-ed: Education policy represents a top issue for Latino voters

"One of the few areas in which Donald Trump’s views have remained consistent is in the creation of barriers to Hispanics," writes former Gov. Bill Richardson.
High school students protest in downtown Portland, Ore., on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/AP)
High school students protest in downtown Portland, Ore., on May 23, 2016.

One of the few areas in which Donald Trump’s views have remained consistent is in the creation of barriers to Hispanics. There is, of course, the “wall” meant to keep us out of the U.S. But he doesn’t seem content with physical barriers. Importantly, for Hispanic parents across the nation, he also rails against high academic standards for all students. The standards in question — the Common Core — help to ensure that students are prepared to succeed in college, regardless of their zip code.

Presidential campaigns are a conversation about America’s future and by the sheer force of numbers, 2016 presidential candidates ignore the concerns of Hispanic voters at their own peril. Think about it: Within our children’s lifetimes, the United States is expected to become a majority-minority nation with Hispanics making up a full quarter of the population.

Too often a conversation about “Hispanic” issues start and end with reforming our immigration system. To be sure, this is an issue that impacts many of us in highly personal ways. This election also happens to offer a stark contrast between one presidential candidate, Secretary Clinton, who embraces the Hispanic community as valuable members of an America made stronger by its diversity, and another who promises to build walls and weed us out.

To be clear, Hispanics are not one-issue voters. We are concerned about our children’s future. We care about access to health care, affordable housing, quality schools for our children, and good jobs. We want the same thing everyone else wants: A piece of the American Dream.  We work very hard to earn it.  And, in the eyes of Hispanic parents, the key to the American Dream is a college education. In fact, Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to say it’s essential that their children earn a college degree.

Unfortunately, for years, students were held to low, inadequate academic standards. For Hispanic students, that meant too many not getting into college and for those that do, they don’t complete their degree. Students graduated from a public education system that told them they were ready for college, only to be told once they got there that they needed to spend more time and money on classes and content they should have learned in high school.

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That has finally started to change thanks to more than 40 states across the country implementing the Common Core State Standards. These standards equip students with the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are essential to success in the 21st century economy. As a result, growing up in a Hispanic community hasn’t meant going to school where someone has already decided for you that you’re not going to be held to high enough standards to succeed in life.

A recent study from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found, an overwhelming majority of Hispanic parents believe all students should be held to high expectations and standards. That may surprise Mr. Trump, but not those of us who recognize that high academic standards and assessments give parents and teachers the kind of valuable information on student progress needed so all kids have the opportunity to succeed.

We know that there’s no challenge too large for our children – whatever their race or ethnicity – to handle. Through hard work they can meet the expectations set for them. I believe that the improvements we have made to our education system is encouraging. But my years in public office have taught me that progress can be fragile.

Loud, divisive voices like Mr. Trump’s seek to build walls that can shake the foundation on which progress has been built. We must recognize progress when it happens and fight for the policies and individuals that make it possible in order to ensure that all Americans have a chance at a bright future.  

Bill Richardson is a former governor of New Mexico, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy and founder of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. He is an adviser to Collaborative for Student Success, a grant-making initiative created of regional and national education foundations.