Public Education: A Right Entitled to All

By: Brandon Pierce

Today was the day: Kevin’s first day of school.  Ten years old, gifted, and sitting with his pencil in hand—Kevin was ready.  The teacher came before the class and gave the instructions for the first assignment:

Gawd muwrein!  I clike fund ans he book? If topher largetwen to climbegan.  What limse anders plast forh.”

One fact I forgot to mention is that Kevin didn’t speak English.  He didn’t even speak Spanish, or any other well-known language in the United States.  Kevin was from a small Guatemalan village where one of over fifty ancient Mayan languages was spoken.  But there he was, in his first American classroom, receiving his American education.

Kevin is one of the over 68,000 unaccompanied minors that have entered the United States illegally since October 2013.  In November 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued a fact sheet that outlines the basics about the illegal, unaccompanied minors’ rights.  As detailed in the fact sheet, once these minors have been apprehended in the U.S., they are put in the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) custody.  While in HHS custody, the children are sheltered in government centers where they receive educational services.  Most children, like Kevin, are released into the United States under the custody of a family member or legal guardian (known as a ‘sponsor’).  While in the guardian’s care, these children attend classes in public schools, often times without knowledge of the English language.  But who would allow such a thing?  The United States Supreme Court would!

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America: Home of the Educated

“Denial of an education is the analogue of denial of the right to vote: the former relegates the individual to second-class social status; the latter places him at a permanent political disadvantage.” – Justice Marshall (Plyler v. Doe)

In June 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices held in Plyler v. Doe that no state should constitutionally deny any person a free public education on account of his immigration status.  Put simply, undocumented children have the same right to a public education as U.S. citizens.

This issue arose out of restrictive Texas education laws.  With regard to undocumented children, Texas education laws mandated that the state: (1) withhold funds otherwise meant for educating children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States and (2) deny enrollment to those children in Texas public schools.

What did it mean to be “legally admitted” in the United States?  Pursuant to state policy, a person was legally admitted if he: (1) presented documentation demonstrating he was legally present in the United States, or (2) federal immigration officials confirmed such documentation was in the process of being obtained.  Ultimately, a group of students from Mexico that did not satisfy the “legally admitted” criteria filed a lawsuit to challenge the Texas education laws.  The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There, Texas’s education laws were held unconstitutional.

The Court based its rationale on the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  More specifically, the Court referenced a provision referred to as the “Equal Protection Clause.”  That clause states, “No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Therefore, unaccompanied children in the United States are entitled to public education.

New York State of Mind

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”                          – Emma Lazarus

Let us consider New York City (NYC): the proverbial gateway into America’s land of opportunity.  For the 2014-15 academic school year, NYC public schools have enrolled over 2,000 unaccompanied minors.  Like Kevin, many of these children have never had one English language course.  To combat this dilemma, NYC schools have implemented the English Language Learners (ELLs) program.  ELLs is a bilingual program that promotes the social and academic development of students who have recently arrived to the U.S. without proficient English skills.  Devora Kaye, NYC’s Department of Education spokeswoman, endorses such progressive actions, reaffirming the Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe.  She asserts the department’s belief that “every child has a right to a great education, and we are committed to providing children who have escaped violence with the academic foundation and access to services that they need to establish a path to long-term achievement.”

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By contrast, not all of New York’s actions have shown a general consensus toward the notion of “education for all.”  New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reviewed approximately 20 percent of the state’s school districts.  Within those districts, the NYCLU discovered that the majority has assembled arduous barriers for undocumented students, thus, potentially preventing their enrollment.  Consider this: seventy-three New York school districts require birth certificates for enrollment.  (Nineteen of those districts require the “original” birth certificate.)  In response, the NYCLU urged state education officials to formulate a model universal enrollment form and list of permissible evidentiary documents.  This is meant to develop uniformity within the state’s education system.

What Does This Mean for Other Children like Kevin?

Analysts are certain that more unaccompanied children are coming, but what is unclear is how they will be welcomed.  This dilemma must be met with an unwavering commitment to U.S. values and standards.  Equality and justice have long been the staple of America’s uniqueness.  If we deny those considerations to all mankind, then we have given up our uniqueness in the world.  In sports language, we have forfeited.  In war language, we have surrendered.  In scientific language, we have become neutral.  In short, we have compromised our national value.  Let us reclaim our true selves through equality and justice because education is a right entitled to all!

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