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By Will Racke
Civil rights groups called out school districts in nearly three dozen California counties last week for inquiring about students’ citizenship and immigration status, raising the issue of how public schools deal with their obligation to educate the state’s enormous immigrant population.
California Rural Legal Assistance and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area penned a joint letter to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, imploring his office to investigate the enrollment practices of 75 districts, which the groups say deter illegal immigrant families from enrolling their children in public schools.
The letter comes as lawmakers, civil rights groups and immigration activists push to make California the nation’s foremost “sanctuary state,” where cooperation with federal immigration authorities is limited to the absolute minimum required by law, and where public benefits are offered to all residents regardless of their immigration status.
It also raises questions about how public school systems, especially in immigrant-heavy states like California, are coping with the unique fiscal problems that come with enrolling large numbers of students from immigrant households, both legal and illegal.
A recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies, “Mapping the Impact of Immigration on Public Schools,” shows that California has far and away the nation’s highest percentage of public school students from immigrant families. In 2015, 48 percent of the state’s public school students came from an immigrant household — 13 percentage points higher than second place Nevada.
In several California cities, over half of public school students are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area, for example, the share is 57 percent; in Salinas, also 57 percent; and in Merced, 52 percent.
Because these children often come from low-income families that speak a language other than English at home, they pose additional funding problems for public schools.
“In addition to adding large numbers of students in poverty and for whom English is not their first language, immigration also creates significant challenges for schools because immigrants have lower incomes, making it unlikely that tax revenue grows correspondingly with enrollment in areas of high immigration,” the CIS report said.
Already struggling under the financial burden of an underfunded teachers’ pension system and potential cuts in federal funding, California schools devote considerable resources to educating immigrant students. The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated that California taxpayers in 2016 spent $16.15 billion on the state’s limited English proficiency (LEP) students — 27 percent of the $60.42 billion in education funds that came from state and local sources that year.
CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian says that kind of financial strain should have advocates of high levels of immigration rethinking their views. “Aren’t numbers of the essence?” he asked last week during a panel discussion of the CIS report, suggesting that “turning the tap down” on immigration levels should be the first step toward relieving pressure on public school systems.
In California, the problem is compounded by the fact that a significant share of LEP students come from illegal immigrant households, which are more likely than legal immigrant families to require additional language education and financial support. CIS estimates that between one-fourth and one-third of public school students nationwide in 2015 were from illegal immigrant households. California is home to an estimated 2.6 million illegal immigrants, about a quarter of the state’s total immigrant population of 10 million.
Whatever the numbers, California schools have no choice but to take on all comers who want to enroll. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, holds that states can’t deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status. California education code also prohibits schools from asking students for social security numbers, which are evidence of U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residence.
By asking for social security numbers or proof of citizenship documents such as a birth certificate, the civil rights groups said, school districts are spurning legal guidance issued by the California School Boards Association.
“Notwithstanding the clear legal protections afforded to immigrant children, we have found that many school districts have placed clear barriers with respect to the constitutional right of these children to enroll in school,” the authors wrote.
The joint letter to Becerra correctly pointed out that school districts asking for information about prospective students’ immigration history or legal status are going beyond what the law allows. When contacted by the Sacramento Bee about the enrollment practices highlighted in the letter, district superintendents promised they would correct any violations soon as possible.
“Truthfully, it’s not who we are and not what we believe,” Superintendent Marcy Guthrie of Mother Lode Union School District told the Bee, adding that the district was pulling the offending forms down from its website and “making it right.”