Public Education: A Right Entitled to All

January 19, 2015

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!


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.”


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!

The Need to “Fix” Our Views on Education

March 11, 2013

           Everybody has an opinion on what should be done to “fix” public education.  Unlike the issues arising in the medical field, tax law, or immigration, the average person has sufficient exposure to or knowledge of what takes place in a public school building.  Every campaign season politicians discuss the need to “improve education,” and nearly every year states pass new legislation to help “make students competitive.”  Public education and those that work within this field are also targeted and blamed, and in recent years a large trend for more charter schools and private schools has led parents to remove their children from the “failing system.”  As parents remove their children from public education and society as a whole attempts to “assign blame” for the failing educational system, a socioeconomic segregation in today’s youth is setting the foundation for the future of civil rights movements.

            It is easy to see that the current system is far from perfect.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2008 only 39% of 17-year old students were able to find, understand, summarize, and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material. Internationally, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores have left the United States far behind other countries in regards to student performance.  There is also evidence to show that drop out rates are still high, individuals are struggling to find employment after school even if they do pass, and the curriculum being taught is not necessarily helping students with jobs they are able to find.

            Despite its prevalence in society and endless discussions about how to fix these problems, many people still do not consider public education to be a civil rights issue.  However, the racial disparities are impossible to ignore:  47% of white students are at the highest level of reading, while only 21% of black students and 22% of Hispanic students are at that same level.  There are also studies that show correlations between socioeconomic status and academic achievement, and additional studies to demonstrate that academic achievement can lead to future success.  Unfortunately, these studies also show the correlations between low socioeconomic status, low academic achievement, and future inability to maintain steady employment.  These studies form the basis of the “school to prison pipeline” and highlight how the failure to fix the educational system harms society as a whole.

            Webster dictionary defines civil rights as the nonpolitical rights of the citizen, or the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.   The rights of citizens to political and social equality form the foundation for the most famous civil rights movements in our nation’s history.  Education forms the foundation of these civil rights, as the purpose of education is to give all people an opportunity for success in the future.  Those individuals leading our country, our states, our cities, and even our universities are all well educated, regardless of their race or former socioeconomic status.  A strong education gives people an opportunity to pursue greater professions, to change their socioeconomic status, and to potentially avoid a life of crime or violence.  All people have the right to social freedom and equality, yet without the knowledge of how to pursue those rights many individuals are left reliant on the educated elite who are able to navigate their way through the current system.

            The reality is that all children can learn, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.  Charter schools, private schools, and public schools have all provided evidence that children can learn in the right atmosphere and with the right teacher.  Despite this evidence, people still refer to public school demographics and make assumptions about what that school is able to accomplish.  People hear where an individual went to school and immediately make assumptions about that individual and what his experiences were like at that school, and assume he is similar to his peers.  This is one of the reasons several educated parents that can afford to do so will place their children in private schools, where the assumption is that they will be getting a superior education and be in a better position to excel in the future.

            Public education is the civil rights issue and a primary staple of our society that must be addressed to ensure that individuals have an equal opportunity at obtaining employment, higher education, and quality housing.  Without addressing public education as a civil rights issue, we can only address the aftermath of inequality and not put prevent these issues from arising in the future.    The research is available, and educators across the country can provide further insight into what changes need to happen to ensure that students are able to pursue social freedom and equality.  Yet until public education is recognized as a true civil rights issue, and a majority of educated and uneducated adults are ready to demand true educational equality and opportunities, the education system will remain a topic for debate and political campaigns.

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