access, education reform, opportunity, tuition increase

Latino swing voters and higher ed

By ELIZABETH ARANDA | Special to The Tampa Tribune

In the last month, much attention in politics focused on the Latino electorate and their role in shaping the Republican primary results in Florida. Along the Interstate 4 corridor this group has been singled out as a possible swing vote that could determine whether the state goes Democratic or Republican in this fall’s presidential election. The presence of Latinos in the state, at 22.5 percent, has grown dramatically, particularly in Central Florida, where in Orange County alone the proportion of Hispanics quadrupled in the last 20 years.

Latino children now are about 27 percent of K-12 students in the state, and they make up nearly one-fifth of college students at public universities in Florida. Recent statistics indicate that the state university system awarded almost 17 percent of its degrees to Latinos, a 33 percent increase since the early 2000s. Florida ranks among the states with the highest proportion of Latino college graduates.

In short, Florida is well positioned to develop a highly educated multicultural workforce with the potential of attracting global firms to the state and transforming the Central Florida region in particular into a high-tech business corridor.

Like most Americans, Latinos believe education is vital to the success of their children. From my research on Latino communities in Florida, I have found that the opportunity to receive a college degree and the quality of life that comes with it are among the reasons why Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, Mexicans and many other Latinos move to Florida.

Similar to other U.S. groups, Latinos vote in line with their values. They are more inclined to support political candidates for office who have records of advocating for greater investment in education.

The proposed $400 million cut in the state-university system is an affront to the efforts of hardworking Florida families, including Latinos whose kids are among the students enrolled at schools such as the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.

USF stands to lose $52 million under the Senate plan, which is lower than the originally proposed $79 million. And UCF would see its share of public funding decline by 35 percent.

Among other universities facing this level of cuts are Florida International and Florida Atlantic in South Florida. FIU, in particular, graduates the highest proportion of Latinos in the state. Other state universities would face smaller, but still disastrous, cuts under this plan, but none as dramatic as USF.

If implemented, the proposed cuts — even the “compromises” that have been reached — would do the following: diminish educational quality by increasing class size, lay off faculty and staff, and cancel classes; lower morale among faculty and staff, who may seek employment opportunities elsewhere; decrease the likelihood that in-state and out-of-state students will want to commit to a public university system that has seen its state support erode over time; and dissuade firms from relocating to Florida if they perceive a mismatch between their workforce needs and the available pool of highly educated workers.

In Central Florida in particular, chipping away at the I-4 region’s educational institutions will seriously compromise any efforts to make this into a high-tech business corridor. At the state level, the trend of graduating the highest proportions of Latinos in the country may stall or perhaps decline altogether.

How will Floridians, and Latinos in particular, respond? Although Cubans are often singled out as the most politically powerful ethnic group in the state, there are really multiple Latino electorates in Florida. There is a critical mass of Puerto Rican and other Latinos along the I-4 corridor who are U.S. citizens by birth or through naturalization and can vote in local, state and national elections.

These groups want the opportunities that all Americans deserve — high-quality, affordable education at all levels. These swing voters will not support candidates for office who contribute to the dismantling of the state’s public university system.

Perhaps public officials should consider this when making future budgetary decisions.

Elizabeth Aranda is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Florida.

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