WASHINGTON — Latino educators gathered this week at the 154th annual National Education Association (NEA) conference in Washington, D.C. say they want and expect the next person who occupies the White House to be heavily involved in education issues that help advance Latino students and other children of color. At the gathering, most of them hoped that person would be Hillary Clinton.
"From what I've seen, she will listen to educators. Right now, teachers aren't even really involved. Policies are enacted and laws are passed, and teachers really have no say in the matter," said Alicia Puig, an elementary school teacher in Miami. The majority of students in her classroom are Latino and limited-English proficient. "And I really like that she talks about increasing teacher pay, and having more training and mentoring programs for current and future teachers."
With three million members, the NEA is the nation's largest union and one of the first major organizations to endorse Clinton. The NEA represents public school teachers and other school personnel. The former First Lady, New York senator and Secretary of State received a raucous welcome when she addressed the more than 11,000 conference attendees on Tuesday.
Raúl González teaches kindergarten in Visalia, California, a farming community in the central valley of the state; 80 percent of the students are Latino.
"We're soon going to have a shortage of teachers and we already have a shortage of bilingual teachers, and we haven't been investing in those programs," he said. "I feel Hillary Clinton will do that and will help educators."
There were 12.7 million Hispanic students in U.S. public schools in 2014, making up a quarter of public school students. This number is expected to reach 14.7 million in 2025 and to account for 29 percent of total enrollment in 2025.
Latino educators spoke to NBC News of what they wanted to see if Clinton became president.
"I want her to focus on the educational needs of all our students: special education, special needs students, undocumented students," said Alfonso Salais, a high school Spanish teacher in Lansing, Michigan.
"We need more resources for our English learners and their parents, and I wish she would finally help us fund special education," said Kathryn Ramírez, a teacher and school board member in the northern California city of Salinas, where the vast majority of students are Hispanic. "It's also my hope that Hillary Clinton can help reform education so that we teachers do not have to teach to the tests. Our students have varying learning styles and diverse needs, and teachers need the flexibility to adjust as needed to meet the needs of the child." she said.
A report released earlier this year by the Child Trends Hispanic Institute found that even though test scores for Latino students are rising, they still lag far behind their non-Hispanic white counterparts in state and national standardized tests, even while high school graduation rates for Latino students are rising.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, the first Latina to head the influential and large group, said testing is indeed one of the key issues the organization is looking at in the next presidential administration.
She said the way the No Child Left Behind test was being administered was hurting poor children and minorities.
"When we showed President Obama evidence that it was not working the way that people thought it was going to work, he listened and signed a bill that ended it and now it has to be developed state by state," said Eskelsen. "The new president will have to make sure that this new law is enforced. At its center it's (Every Student Succeeds Act) about equal access. It's not about missing a goal and failing and getting punished. It's about making sure that all students have access to a quality education, so we want a president that will take that to heart."
NEA members spoke about who they'd like to see on the ticket with Clinton.
"I would love to see Xavier Becerra. He knows the issues and has advocated for the community for a long time," said González, the California kindergarten teacher. HUD Secretary Julián Castro was a crowd favorite. "It's time for a Latino candidate and Castro would be excellent. Our nation is progressing and moving forward," said Salais, the Spanish teacher from Michigan, echoing what many Latino attendees said. "We have the first black president, and hopefully we'll have the first female, and it would be nice to have the first Latino vice president," he added.
Eskelsen García often speaks about how she went into teaching in a roundabout way, first as a cafeteria "lunch lady" and then as a teacher's aide before going back to school and obtaining a degree in education. She told NBC Latino that while the organization she heads is large and national in scope, Latino students are not far from the minds of its members.
"These are educators from all walks of life and every racial group, but the heart and soul of this gathering is which of our students need the most. [The members] know that dreamers and immigrant families are so often forgotten, and so our hearts are with them," she said. "Regardless of race, ethnicity, language — it's about the students."