Providing educational equity to an influx of new immigrants – the moral, the legal, and the financial implications

Like many school districts across the country, my home school district is in the midst of figuring out how to enroll and support an unexpected influx of new immigrants to our community. For context purposes, our district tends to serve English Language Learners (ELLs) effectively (including the presence of one of the few English/Spanish dual language schools in the state), there’s a strong Latino community established in the city, there’s public transportation, and there’s some reasonably priced housing (note, it’s still really expensive here, but this said is in comparison to the extraordinarily affluent towns that surround us). From an advocacy standpoint and for my strong affiliations with the Latino community- this seems like a great fit. But, it’s not so simple. This is multifaceted issue and I’m likely missing parts of the reality, but here’s a summary of the pieces that I’ve been working through in the last few weeks.

The “easy” pieces:

  • Advocacy – New immigrants have undergone a variety of circumstances and pathways to get here, some of which may have included in their home countries, extreme trauma getting to the border, and/or traumatic experiences in detention facilities after getting over the border. Many likely require access to public transportation, access to work, healthcare, schools, and family/friends to help transition into a new community.
  • Moral – Our overall immigration system is broken. We lack efficient pathways to citizenship and permanent visas. (Personal note – my family has gone through the visa and citizenship process. It took hundreds of hours of work, hundreds of dollars, and several years. We were fortunate to figure out how to navigate the system, but it wasn’t easy.) Bottom line – there are young residents in our community who need and deserve to be educated. The faster we can get students into the education system, the faster we can improve their chances of future success. These are kids, they want and deserve to learn. (In my view) it is the moral obligation of a community to educate its residents. Not doing so results in long-term moral and financial implications that will impact us all.
  • Legal – School districts in the U.S. must educate every child who can prove residency in our community. In addition, school districts cannot (or at least are not supposed to ask) about legal status. Nor, should we generalize what legal status any of these new immigrants may have. Some may be awaiting asylum status or green card visas, some may already have them, some may be illegal, etc. We just don’t know (and it shouldn’t really matter). If they can prove residency, we must educate.

Which presents the major issues:

  • Enrollment projections – Many districts make funding and facility decisions based on enrollment projections and budgets are set the prior year. In our district, we predicted 100 new students between June and the beginning of this school year. That number was pretty accurate. But, then students kept arriving, increasing our enrollment numbers by another 200 students (i.e. now 300 new students vs the projected 100, and new students continue to arrive almost every day).
  • State attendance dates – In CT, that date is Oct 1. Our city and district are scrambling and ramping up community health services to get as many kids vaccinated and completed health exams as quickly as possible. If they aren’t cleared by Oct. 1, they can still enroll in school, but the district will not see any additional per pupil funds for those students from the state. Which means, we will have to figure out how to stretch existing dollars further.
  • Affordable housing/services – Often, newly arrived immigrant families may live with family members or friends. This may result in more people living in an apartment or home than it is zoned for. While the city taxes property based on the property value, it does not tax based on the number of occupants. When more people live in a home than are supposed to be there, the city is unable to collect additional tax revenue to pay for the city services utilized by those residents (i.e. infrastructure like sewer lines, water lines, and the schools). As long as our state(s) continue to rely on property taxes as the primary source of revenue for education, our schools will continue to be short-changed (even with increased enforcement of zoning issues of “illegal” apartments). In addition, without a comprehensive plan for increasing affordable and accessible housing and job training services, we would just shift one problem to another (i.e. homelessness).
  • Financial – Even if the students are registered and enrolled on Oct. 1st, it is highly unlikely the district will receive enough state funds to adequately cover the cost of educating recent immigrants who may require ELL supports (estimated to be 1/3 higher than a non-ELL student’s cost) AND may also require additional trauma support services. Without additional sources of funding coming from Washington DC to address these needs, local districts must shuffle funds around to adequately support these students. Since our budget for the year was set last spring, this likely means not filling vacant positions, or cutting other programs or services to do so.

As a result, while school districts and city leaders try to figure out how to help students as quickly as possible, the broader immigration debate ramps up in local communities. Comments such as “they should learn English before they get here, they should go back where they came from, this is going to hurt our native [insert any town name] kids, etc” fill social media platforms.

There are potential solutions –  The federal government could release funds to local school districts to help cover the cost of providing education and appropriate wraparound services to these new students, AND congress could actually pass comprehensive immigration reform. But, unfortunately in the meantime, local education agencies and cities must work together to try and mobilize partners and resources to do whatever we/they can to support our newest community members. Besides the immediate moral implications of educating and supporting kids, there are deep long-term impacts as these students become adults, get jobs, and contribute to the fabric of our communities as well as the broader tax base. These are our future teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, tradespeople, and business owners. Serving students with quality educations now will serve us all in the long run. These children have been through enough already. It’s time for adults to figure out solutions.

Disclosures: I’m currently a school board member in Norwalk, CT; the enrollment numbers provided are public information and were shared at a board meeting – none of this is privileged information; my husband is an immigrant from Mexico; I lived in Nicaragua for five months; and my own ancestors were all immigrants at various times and in immigration waves from more recently (Lebanon) to a long time ago (Ireland and Dutch).

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