Updated Federal Guidance Ensures Equal Access to Education

Education
Racial Equity

Yesterday the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education released new guidance to state and local educational agencies reminding them of their obligations under federal law to provide equal access to all children at public elementary and secondary schools. This new guidance, updated from a previous letter that was issued in 2011, will help to ensure that school enrollment practices do not discourage participation of immigrant students or children of immigrants due to a child’s or parent’s immigration status.

The federal guidance letter cites several statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of the race, color, or national origin in school enrollment practices, including Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act and the United States as well as the 1982 United States Supreme Court ruling inPlyler v. Doe which prohibits states from denying access to a public K-12 education to a student based on immigration status.

recent paper by First Focus highlights the importance of the Plyler v. Doe decision in guaranteeing every child growing up in the U.S. equal access to education, including undocumented children and youth who are commonly referred to as “DREAMers.” In addition to providing protection to the roughly 1 million undocumented children under 18 living in the U.S. today, Plyler v. Doe also provides protections against discriminatory enrollment practices that could potentially discourage undocumented parents from enrolling their U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident children. This is particularly important given that an estimated 4.5 million U.S. citizen children currently live in mixed-status families.

In addition to the guidance letter, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education also issued a fact sheet and FAQ guide. In these documents, guidance is provided to states on appropriate enrollment practices, including acceptable forms of documentation to determine residency and age; restrictions on inquiring about citizenship status of students and parents; appropriate policies regarding requests for social security numbers; and appropriate practices for documenting race and ethnicity for data collection purposes.

The most recent threat to the Plyler v. Doe mandate came with the passage of Alabama’s HB 56 immigration law in 2011, which explicitly required elementary and secondary schools to document the citizenship status of their students. While this provision of the HB 56 law and others were ultimately struck down as unconstitutional, in the few weeks that the school-specific provision was implemented the chill factor was immediately felt thousands of Latino students suddenly absent from Alabama schools.

As we continue to wait for the passage of immigration reform to provide children in mixed status families with the full security and protection that their families need to do well, efforts such as these to uphold current law and the fundamental rights of all children are critical to ensure that each and every child in America has the opportunity to achieve his or her potential.