White House puts teachers in the spotlight as Latinos look away

At a reception with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday, a man in a blue checkered suit suddenly broke down in tears.

The man is one of the teachers of the year, in Washington for recognition and a state dinner hosted Thursday by first lady Jill Biden.

“Of the 50-plus teachers they had like, easily 10 for which they literally — they were in tears,” said Roy Sosa, a fintech entrepreneur who surprised each of the educators with a $5,000 gift at the reception.

“They were in tears because this $5,000 was going to enable them to do something that really lifted a weight off their shoulders.”

Biden’s first-ever state dinner for teachers and Sosa’s gift have something in common: They’re both designed to make educators more visible in a political environment that’s shifting the education debate toward culture war issues.

For Latinos, a demographic that has traditionally prioritized education, the issue has started to fall through the cracks, displaced by economic concerns, health care and gun violence.

The 2023 UnidosUS preelection poll of the Hispanic electorate found three of the top five issues for respondents had to do with the economy: inflation, jobs and affordable housing.

Health care and gun violence rounded out the top five, followed by immigration and the border, and only then education and public school quality.

That’s a drastic shift in priorities — ahead of a hotly contested election — for an electorate that for decades reliably listed education as a top five concern.

A similar UnidosUS poll from 2020 shows education trailing only racial justice, health care, jobs and the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2006, education was listed at the top policy priority for Latinos.

In both UnidosUS and Pew Research polls, education seems to be susceptible to be displaced by temporary issues, for instance by the coronavirus response in 2020 polling.

The shift away from education is also notable for a demographic group with a larger school-age population. The median age for Latinos was 29.5 years in 2021, compared to the national average of 37.8, according to the Pew Research Center.

But if Latinos will not come to education, education will go to Latinos, according to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

“In this polarized political climate where extremists traffic in chaos, fear and division, we must be intentional in both lifting up the promise of public education, and fighting for the necessary resources to improve it — including for bilingual and multilingual education to support Latino students. In other words, we need to connect the dots to cut through the noise. That’s how Latino voters will hear us,” Weingarten said.

“Another thing we know is that Latino voters are unwilling to cave to extremist education policies that censor educators and ban diverse books — something eerily similar to what dictators across Latin America have done and which Latinos firmly reject.”

And the White House is leaning in on that vision, making the connection between education, jobs and family values.

“As we travel across the nation and engage in virtual events, it’s clear to us that education does matter to Latinos and it is core to Latino families’ values. Education isn’t an isolated issue. It’s an issue that intersects and crosses all other issues as well. Without a strong educational system, our communities fare worse in terms of economic standing, health and well-being. For far too long, the bar has been set too low when it comes to support for our schools, students and educators,” said Melody Gonzales, executive director of the White House Initiative on Hispanics.

“Our White House Hispanic Initiative team and President’s Advisory Commission are working with partners across the nation and staff across the federal government to advance our educational priorities and to better bridge the Latino community with federal programs, grants, civil rights protections, procurement opportunities, jobs, internships and resources on all of the issues that Latinos care about.”

Beyond politics, Sosa said shifting economic patterns are also driving disinterest in traditional education policy.

“We now have close to 60 million Americans that derive their income from the gig economy. And that’s cool — and not so cool — in that you don’t need as much of an education to be an Uber driver and Instacart delivery, Amazon Prime delivery person, or TaskRabbit,” said Sosa, who co-founded his first fintech firm, NetSpend, with his brother Bertrand in 1999.

“But the reality is, we do need — I think education is so much more than academics, particularly when you go in the K through we’ll say like, seventh, eighth grade. There’s a lot of human development that I think goes beyond what AI automation can do,” said Sosa, whose children attend public school.

That view is shared by teachers.

“Public schools in the United States do something no other institution and no other country does — they create opportunity and a pathway to knowledge for all students, regardless of background or cultural identity,” Weingarten said.

The first lady, who teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, has pushed to return teachers to the center of policy discussions on education.

In a surprise appearance on “CBS Mornings” last month, Jill Biden congratulated National Teacher of the Year Missy Testerman and announced she was elevating the annual teacher of the year reception to a White House state dinner honoring Testerman and teachers of the year from each state and territory.

“It’s one of my favorite events at the White House, when we bring in the teachers of the year and we celebrate them every year,” she said.

The Biden administration announced Thursday a series of measures to support teachers — in 2022, public school teachers made on average $66,397 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The measures include the establishment of a center to help recruitment and retention through the Department of Education, funding to train special education teachers, and making data available showing, by congressional district, how many teachers have received student loan relief.

Still, the average earnings for teachers are only slightly above the Social Security Administration’s national average wage index: $63,795.13 in 2022.

Sosa, who plans to keep funding the cash award for teachers of the year with a view to expand the program, said it’s not just about the money.

“We’re going to spend the next few months figuring out how we can multiply it in size. I would like to see this, by the time we get to next year, I would like to see this at the level of — it may not get there on day one, but I’d like to see it at the level of Oscars, the Grammys the Emmys. I would like to see this in a big auditorium whether it’s Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center,” Sosa said.

—Updated May 3 at 9:30 a.m.

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