Illegal Aliens Entitled to Education, Court Rules

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Correspondent Susan Levine in Houston contributed to this report.

Washington--A Texas law that permitted school districts to charge tuition for educating children who are illegal aliens was declared unconstitutional last week by the Supreme Court.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court upheld two rulings by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the Texas statute, passed in 1975 but barred by court order from being implemented, violated the students' 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the laws.

Excerpts from the Court's decisionand the text of the dissent areon pages 12 and 14, respectively.

The Court held that "... the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State's territory. That a person's initial entry into a State, or into the United States, was unlawful, and that he may for that reason be expelled, cannot negate the simple fact of his presence within the state's territorial perimeter."

The case had become a source of contention between the Reagan Administration and the Hispanic community. Although the Carter Administration had argued in federal appeals court against the Texas law, the Justice Department last fall withdrew from the lawsuit, filing a brief that said the federal government had no legal "interest" in the case.

The Texas statute, which prohibited the use of state education funds to educate illegal aliens, would have allowed school districts either to charge tuition or to refuse to educate children who could not provide documentation of their legal status.

Because few parents of such children can afford to pay school tuition, the effect of the law would be to "[impose] a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status," Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority.

"The stigma of illiteracy will mark them for the rest of their lives. By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation," the opinion continued.

The Court's decision was praised last week by representatives of Hispanic-rights groups. Peter D. Roos, the lawyer who ar-gued the case for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the decision "will have very important consequences for the illegal-alien children."

He added that although Texas was the only state to pass such a law, if the statute had been upheld, other states would have attempted to exclude illegal-alien children from their educational systems.

Reaction to the ruling was mixed in Texas, where the issue of educating illegal-alien children compounds the state's continuing need to expand its bilingual-education system--a need recognized by state education officials, who say they are unable to attract qualified bilingual teachers to the state. (The state estimates that 99 percent of illegal-alien children require bilingual instruction.)

Raymon L. Bynum, the Texas commissioner of education, estimated that the Court's ruling could cost the state between $55 million and $60 million a year. "We've got the money, we can appropriate the money. The problem is we don't have enough bilingual teachers now, and we're not getting any assistance whatsoever," he said. "This is a case in which the federal government is failing to enforce the [immigration] laws and then impacting a burden on states and local entities of government."

In appealing the original decision against the Texas law by a federal district judge, the state had estimated that as many as 110,000 children of illegal-alien parents would overwhelm the state's school systems if the law were struck down. That did not occur as the case moved through the courts, however; approximately 18,000 illegal-alien children attended Texas public schools in the 1981-82 school year, according to the state education agency.

Billy R. Reagan, Houston's school superintendent, said that his district paid $15 million to educate 5,000 illegal-alien children last year. Mr. Reagan, who has for several years predicted a large influx of illegal-alien children if the Texas law were not upheld, said again last week that the Court's decision would encourage illegal immigration, which would result in a strain on the school district's bilingual-education program and its Title I program to aid disadvantaged children.

"In essence, the Supreme Court is saying, 'If you want to bring your child into this country, he'll have to be educated.' And when you look at the terrible conditions in other countries, I think this decision will be a magnet for these people," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan said he believed the decision was "fair and just."

The decision in Plyler v. Doe--which represented the first time the Court has extended equal-protection guarantees to those not legally admitted to the United States--reaffirmed a previous Court ruling, in a school-finance case known as San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, that education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

But in a lengthy discussion of "the pivotal role of education in sustaining our political and cultural heritage," Justice Brennan concluded that denying education to illegal aliens would take an "inestimable toll ... on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual ... ."

Such a consideration, the opinion held, superseded the state's argument that children who are not legal residents of the state are not entitled to equal protection of the laws and that educating the approximately 20,000 illegal-alien children in Texas would impose a financial burden on the state's taxpayers.

"It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a sub-class of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation," the opinion said.

Although the Court was unanimous in rejecting the state's argument against providing 14th Amendment protections to illegal-alien children, a strongly worded dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger charged that the majority was "assum[ing] a policymaking role" that would allow the Court "to become an omnipotent and omniscient problem solver."

"The Equal Protection Clause does not mandate identical treatment of different categories of persons," the Chief Justice wrote. The important issue in the case, he continued, was "whether, for purposes of allocating its finite resources, a State has a legitimate reason to differentiate between persons who are lawfully within the State and those who are unlawfully there. The distinction the State of Texas has drawn ... is not unconstitutional."

The Chief Justice's dissent was also signed by Associate Justices Byron R. White, William H. Rehnquist, and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice Brennan's opinion was joined by Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, and John Paul Stevens. Associate Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell also filed separate, concurring opinions. Each of those opinions discussed the special status of education, which, although it is not a fundamental right mentioned in the Constitution, was said by the Justices to deserve higher priority than other social and economic benefits.

In the concurring opinion of Justice Blackmun, "other benefits provided by the State, such as housing and public assistance, are of course important. ... But classifications involving the complete denial of education are in a sense unique, for they strike at the heart of equal protection values by involving the State in the creation of permanent class distinctions."

That point is considered an important one, because extending full 14th Amendment rights to illegal aliens could lead to lawsuits seeking welfare, housing, and other benefits for them from state and federal governments. (Until the Court's ruling, illegal aliens were afforded constitutional rights only to due process.)

In other education-related issues, the Court took the following action:

In a dispute over a change in school-board election procedures in Winston County, Miss., the Court ruled 8-to-1 that any proposed changes in districts must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Mississippi Supreme Court had refused to permit the Justice Department, which oversees jurisdictional changes in voting districts, to review the proposed changes.

The Court agreed to review an appeal of a decision by a federal appeals court that the reproduction of television programs using home videotape equipment violated copyright law. Thirty education groups have filed a friend-of-the-court brief, in which they allege that restricting the use of videotape equipment could thwart the use of such equipment in schools.

Vol. 01, Issue 39

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