Texas schools expect to easily accommodate immigrant kids

08/07/2014 10:06 AM

08/07/2014 10:13 AM

As the first day of school approaches for an estimated 5.1 million Texas students, public school districts and state lawmakers are assessing the impact of some 4,000 undocumented immigrant children who may flow into the system.

The children from Central America arrived at the nation’s Southwest border this summer, many of them fleeing violence and abuse in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

After they are processed by immigration officials, they move out of temporary shelters to stay with parents, other relatives or foster families nationwide. Of the 30,340 unaccompanied children placed with sponsors Jan. 1-July 7, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, Texas had the most, 4,280.

Texas school districts are not required to ask about immigration status.

“They are just going to ask, ‘Does Johnny live in our district?’ ” David Anderson, general counsel for the Texas Education Agency, told lawmakers during a committee hearing in Austin. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ they are going to enroll the student.”

Often, the unaccompanied minors staying in the temporary federal facilities don’t attend public school, but have tutors, according to Catholic Charities Fort Worth, school leaders in various school districts and testimony during the committee hearing.

In Fort Worth, where Catholic Charities served about 200 youths who came through from June 2013 to June 2014, three stayed in the city, said Michael Steinert, executive director of student support services.

The Fort Worth school district provides a teacher at the Catholic Charities shelter and will continue to do so, he said.

“We have to take them,” state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in a telephone interview. He is chairman of the House Select Committee on Fiscal Impact of Texas Border Support Operations.

“How much is it going to cost Texas? We think the federal government should reimburse us for those costs,” Bonnen said.

Estimates provided by the TEA indicate the cost at $9,500 per year per student. The state projects enrollment growth of about 80,000 students every year, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in Austin. The estimate comes from a variety of scenarios including students coming from other states and transferring to public schools from private or home schools.

Anderson told lawmakers the state’s overall appropriation for education, currently a little over $17 billion, could accommodate unaccompanied minors without exceeding the budget.

Hurricane Katrina

Texas school districts have experience educating displaced youngsters,

Districts have handled influxes of refugees from Vietnam, Somalia, Sudan and Bosnia. Texas schools took tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

During the 2005-06 school year, Texas schools enrolled 47,783 evacuees. The state received $235 million in emergency aid.

“All of those funds were sent to the local districts,” Culbertson said.

The hurricane experience also tested how the Texas handled a large number of youngsters entering a high-stakes accountability system: The state gave districts a break on testing evacuees for a year.

Texas already has provisions for unschooled children, children seeking asylum and new students who don’t speak English. In the case of unschooled children and those seeking asylum, they don’t test during the first year. There are also tests that accommodate language issues.

Supreme Court ruling

School districts can’t impose consequences for an answer to an immigration question, or for a refusal to answer such a question, Culbertson said. The issue was addressed in the Supreme Court in the 1980s. In Plyler v. Doe, the court “held Texas could not deny an education to resident illegal aliens,” Culbertson said.

She said the federal Justice and Education departments have gone further, warning against practices that might discourage enrollment based on immigration status, such as requiring a Social Security number.

Lydia Martin, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district’s deputy superintendent for educational operations, said the district follows the federal and state laws and rules.

“The district in which a child resides (whether they live with their family, a guardian, or are homeless) has the responsibility to enroll and serve the student,” Martin said. “However, we cannot enroll any child without them at least having the required immunization started.”

Earlier this summer, Alabama schools made headlines when the Southern Poverty Law Center complained that many enrollment forms denied or discouraged access to education by requesting Social Security numbers or U.S. birth certificates.

Alabama’s superintendent of education sent a memo to city and county school leaders saying they cannot require Social Security numbers or birth certificates for enrollment.

“No child is to be denied enrollment in any school or participation in school activities and programs based on the immigration of the child or the child’s parents/guardians,” the memo says.

Bonnen, the state House committee chairman, said: “I don’t expect there to be chaos or overflowing classrooms. Texas is a large state. We are a dynamic state.”

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