Survey: Most Floridians support Spanish instruction in schools

More than two-thirds of Florida residents polled say public school students should have to take Spanish, according to a University of Florida economic survey.

The strong response should come as no surprise in Miami-Dade County, where parents and advocates have been pushing for more language classes even as the school district struggles to recruit enough qualified teachers.

But the University of Florida found the idea was supported far beyond Miami-Dade. More than 60 percent of those polled in every region of the state — North, Central, Southwest and Southeast – approved.

Christopher McCarty, director of the University of Florida Survey Research Center at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, added the question to the university’s monthly economic poll and is surprised by the result.

“Given this is somewhat of a contentious issue, certainly in other states, I thought that this might be more contentious here,” he said. “But there was strong support for requiring Spanish and requiring [that] our children learn to be bilingual.”

McCarty said immigration is sure to be a top issue in the presidential campaign. He said he thinks these poll results could start a conversation in Florida about requiring Spanish. Florida students don’t have to take a foreign language to graduate from high school. But some Florida universities require foreign language courses.

If any state is likely to require Spanish, McCarty said it’s Florida.

“I think that we just have to face the fact that — and not that it’s a bad thing — that the U.S. and Florida are becoming increasingly Hispanic,” McCarty said, “and we are, just as citizens, going to encounter people who speak Spanish as well as English.”

The results might or might not encourage lawmakers to consider requiring Spanish. But McCarty notes that the poll shows support exceeds the 60 percent of voters needed to approve a ballot amendment. In 1988, voters amended the state constitution to make English the official language.

One problem with the idea? Finding enough teachers. Miami-Dade schools have struggled to find enough qualified Spanish teachers to support bilingual education programs.

The school district is revamping the way it offers language instruction to make sure every student has an opportunity to take classes while improving the quality of instruction.

The University of Florida poll also found that 95 percent of those who responded agreed that schools should teach computer skills. Requiring students to study a foreign language of their choice had 81 percent support, followed by Florida history (77 percent) and geometry (75 percent).

The poll surveyed 506 people by telephone.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.