June 25, 2024

Jan Resseger: When Fear and Xenophobia Infect Discussions of Education Policy

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Jan Resseger looks at an important article about immigration and public schools. Reposted with permission

When my husband’s new job caused us to settle in Cleveland, Ohio 48 years ago, I was able to find a part-time job teaching in the Cleveland Public Schools’ adult English as a Second Language program.

My students were living in Cleveland for all kinds of reasons. Many had relatives here already—-people who had come to work in the steel mills and other industries. Others had settled in what became Cleveland’s large Hungarian neighborhood after the 1956 revolution. Some came to the U.S. following the war in Vietnam. All those years ago, my students were from Hungary, Romania, Italy, Poland, the Ukraine, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Vietnam, and Laos. These were the adults who needed to learn English in Cleveland; their children also learned English in the public schools. School districts then and now have assumed their obligation to educate their own linguistic minorities—Russians Jews sponsored by synagogues in one Cleveland suburb, Hmongs in St. Paul, Minnesota, Somalis in Lewistown, Maine, and Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan.  Today, many U.S. school districts also serve large groups of students from Mexico and Central America whose primary language is Spanish.

The Cleveland Public Schools had developed the program where I worked to serve the students who lived here and needed services.  That is precisely what school districts across the country have, for generations, been expected to do.  I was far from perfectly qualified, although I had studied linguistics and language learning in college and grad school. In those days, special certification was not required for English as a Second Language teachers, but the school district had invested funding to hire an excellent program director who focused on regular staff development to help teachers learn specific techniques. She regularly visited our classes—that met in the public library and its several branches, community centers and neighborhood associations and city recreation centers—to observe and help us with ESL teaching skills. Like all school districts, the Cleveland Public Schools fulfilled its responsibility to immigrant residents—even the adults in addition to the children and adolescents enrolled in the district’s  K-12 public schools.

Back then, the challenges were understood as logistical and economic: how to plan and staff adequate programming and how to find, afford, and prepare the teachers. In an important report last week for Education Week,  A More Complete Picture of Immigration’s Impact on U.S. Public Schools, Libby Stanford shows that, despite the frightening stories and xenophobia being trumpeted by Donald Trump and other conservative politicians, logistics and economics are still the biggest challenges. And just as serving immigrant students well has been a challenge over the years in some places more than others, it is also true today that the financial and logistical challenges of staffing and programming provide greater challenges for the districts where immigrants are settling.

Stanford describes what she heard at a recent Congressional hearing: “GOP lawmakers and their invited witnesses at the June 4 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee described a situation in which schools were overrrun with migrant students. They claimed that educating these students takes away from other students’ education and argued that the influx of migrant youth poses safety concerns. ‘Educating illegal immigrant children requires substantial resources, altering the learning environment for all students.’ Subcommittee Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fla., said in his opening statement. ‘Overcrowded classrooms, the need for new facilities, and strained student-to-teacher ratios are just some of the challenges.’”

Stanford points out that while “the subcommittee that hosted the hearing doesn’t have jurisdiction over immigration issues… the hearing did put on display the intersection of education with one of the top issues in the 2024 election. Former President Donald Trump has said he will ‘carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history’ if elected in November. He has also demonized newly arrived migrants, saying people who cross the border are ‘dangerous,’ from ‘mental institutions,’ and have come to America to ‘prey on our people.’ He has written on his Truth Social network that ‘MIGRANT CRIME IS TAKING OVER AMERICA.’”

Stanford also notes that the Heritage Foundation, “has developed a detailed policy agenda for the next conservative president… (including) a brief calling on states to require that public schools charge unaccompanied migrant children and children of undocumented immigrant parents tuition.”  This policy would violate a 1982, U.S. Supreme Court mandate, Plyler v. Doe, guaranteeing immigrant children, including undocumented children, the right to free public education.

Stanford explains that her purpose is to provide some context “to paint a fuller picture” of the impact of immigration today on public schools: “Migrant students aren’t overrunning the K-12 system, but they are making an impact… In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey counted  649,000 children ages 5 to 17 who have been living in the United States for three years or less, and another 1.5 million immigrant children who have been living in the country for four or more years… In 2021, one percent of children ages 5-17 were foreign-born and had been in the United States less than three years; 3 percent were foreign-born and had been in the country four or more years. The remaining approximately 96 percent of students were born in the United States… The New York City school district estimates 36,000 migrant students have enrolled over the past two years, and Denver schools enrolled 4,700 newly arrived students this school year. The Chicago school district estimates 8,900 migrant students are enrolled….”

The National Center for Education Statistics adds additional statistics from 2021, the most recent year when data is available: 10.6 percent, or 5.3 million U.S. public school students are English language learners, with the highest percentages in Texas (20.2 percent ), California (18.9 percent), and New Mexico (18.8 percent).

One of the witnesses at the Congressional hearing, Julie Sugarman, associate director for K-12 education research at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, provided important context: “We certainly have been hearing from systems of very different sizes—New York being huge to small rural places—that they are just receiving more newcomers than they ever have… But it does tend to be localized… One of the big issues is that it’s difficult not knowing… when kids are going to be coming… A lot of districts have planners who think about demographics, but this is just sort of above and beyond all of that. School districts are just not very nimble when it comes to budgeting, so if you have more than a couple of kids coming that you’re  not expecting, it does make it difficult to figure out where the resources are going to come from midyear.”

The finances can be even more challenging than the logistics because school funding is inadequate in almost every state: “When a migrant student enrolls in a school, the school is required to educate that student… How challenging that is depends on state and local district budgets, as well as the infrastructure districts already have in place, Sugarman said. ‘Districts do need to make choices as to what they’re funding, and sometimes, things have to be discontinued if they need to use those funds for other purposes… But the degree to which new money has to be found or funds have to be shifted really depends on how much groundwork has been done at the district already. If you already have a lot of teachers who are well-trained to serve these kids, then you might need just a minimal number of paraprofessionals or ESL teachers to serve newcomers.’ It’s also important not to conflate a districts’ per-pupil spending with the cost of educating a single new student, Sugarman said… ‘It’s not quite as cut and dried… because they can absorb two or three kids with a minimal amount of additional actual cost if they don’t have to actually hire a new teacher… In other words, when a new student enrolls, it doesn’t necessarily add $30,000….’”

The Congressional hearing surfaced two other logistical challenges. First, there is a shortage of English-as-a-Second-Language teachers: “Such teachers don’t only serve students newly arrived to the United States. The majority of English learners are U.S. citizens…. (T)he shortage in trained educators has made it difficult in a number of districts to meet migrant students’ needs.”

Finally, Sugarman reminded the committee: “Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides grants to help states supplement the cost of serving English learners, whether immigrants or native-born.” Another witness pointed out, however, that this funding has recently been threatened by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Amalia Chamorro of UnidosUS told members of the committee: “It would have a devastating effect if that program was to be eliminated… It is a critical source of support for states and districts.”

For generations, public school districts have been fulfilling their responsibility  to welcome and serve immigrant families in all kinds of communities across the United States.  That process continues.  Stanford speaks directly to one more piece of damaging rhetoric inflaming fear during this election season, however: “There aren’t any data… to show that immigrant students are more likely to cause violence in schools than any other subgroup of students. That kind of rhetoric can be damaging to immigrant communities.”

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