The Forgotten History of Immigration

For Public Schools, the Impact Has Been Profound—and Positive

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As school doors opened this fall, immigrant children once again made up the nation’s fastest-growing school population, a majority of them the children of Mexican immigrants. If history is any indication, these children will contribute as much as they learn.

But we have forgotten—indeed, if we ever really acknowledged—the immigrant’s contributions to American schools, a rich and vibrant history lost in the passage of time and the din of contemporary debates over immigration reform. From curriculum improvements, to the introduction of the trade school, to new ways to financially support public schools, the immigrant has helped propel some of the most significant and enduring changes in the last century in American public schools and in state and federal education policy, many of the changes made out of necessity.

Consider the last decade of the 19th century, a tumultuous time in national life, when a jittery nation faced the industrial age with a workforce ill-equipped to manage the wonders of new machinery. Though they taxed schools then, as now, immigrants also helped provide the answer. As more of them poured into the country at the turn of the last century, they brought with them models of the trade school, the forerunner of vocational training in schools today. In 1891, The New York Times, while often portraying immigrants as burdensome additions to society, nonetheless celebrated the idea they brought, proposing that the trade schools of France, Germany, and England be made part of the American education experience.

Within schools themselves, immigrant children at the dawn of the 20th century transformed the institution in less than a generation. They helped inspire, among other improvements, the permanent residency of school nurses and health clinics. Commonplace today, school-based health clinics still offer the only health care many American children receive in the poorest and most isolated regions of the country; and in the 1990s, health-care services were reintroduced in many schools in the inner city, where immigrants tend to cluster because of cheap housing. Enhanced civics classes also were quickly introduced a century ago to aid in the acculturation of immigrant children, and free English classes—representing the earliest forms of English as a second language—were offered en masse to immigrants and their children in night schools housed in school buildings, churches, and other public meeting places.

Innovations at the time, these services are now so standard in American schools that no one living today can remember an age without them. More recently, immigrant groups, civil rights organizations, and other groups have successfully pushed for history textbooks and multicultural curricula that offer, for starters, a wider framing of American history and the contributions of immigrants, an understanding that can only help in our shrinking world.

The great irony, of course, is that immigrants today are flocking to the United States not only for jobs; they’re also coming for another prize: free education in public schools that many Americans now consider too poor, too bereft of quality, to send their own children to. But even over issues of school quality, Americans can thank the immigrant for the continuing efforts to improve public spending on education.

Nearly 40 years ago, thousands of high school students, many of them children of Mexican immigrants or immigrants themselves, walked out of five schools in East Los Angeles, demanding better education in demonstrations recently revisited in the HBO movie “Walkout.” The 1968 demonstrations—pointing out inequities in school funding, among other deficiencies—helped produce stronger curricula, more college-prep courses, and eventually the hiring of more Latino teachers.

The great irony is that immigrants today are flocking to the United States not only for jobs, but also for education in public schools that many Americans now consider too poor, too bereft of quality, to send their own children to.

A smaller demonstration a few weeks later by Texas Latino high school students, many of them also immigrants or children of immigrants, had a much larger impact. The demonstration by 400 Edgewood High School students from San Antonio’s West Side working-class neighborhood spawned a class-action lawsuit that led to a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, parentssued under the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution after they learned from their children that Edgewood sometimes lacked enough money to even purchase chalk. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled against Edgewood families, saying financial support of public schools is a state responsibility, not a federal one.

Few cases rejected by the Suzpreme Court have generated more reform: The Texas lawsuit—eventually resulting in more state aid to poor schools that often educate poor and immigrant populations—helped frame many of the lawsuits in the 42 states now in court over school funding issues. The more recent cases have often benefited middle-class white children in suburban school systems.

In the current alarm over immigrants and their rights, the American idea that all people deserve a chance to improve themselves through education has taken a thorough beating. The growing resegregation of schools along race and class lines, combined with an inability or indifference concerning the education of immigrants, whether in this country legally or illegally, has implications for us all: a growing, and permanent, uneducated underclass at a time when, as Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts reminded California Republicans during their state convention in August, the United States needs more skilled immigrants.

Supporting immigrants’ rights and their access to schools and other services is not a popular stand. But in the nascent years of the 21st century, we would be well served in harnessing once again the raw energy and sheer numbers of immigrants to inspire more substantive changes in schools, using their presence, for example, to promote the idea that a good American citizen is, in fact, a citizen of the world, and to send strong messages to children that multilingualism is a meaningful pursuit.

Speaking in 1896, Harvard University President Charles William Eliot took the measure of a country in upheaval over the millions of new immigrants flooding U.S. cities and the challenges they posed to schools and American life. “The position of the educated and well-to-do classes,” he said, “cannot depend for the preservation of their advantages on … any legislation not equally applicable to the poorest and humblest citizen.”

That’s one lesson we might well remember in this school year and beyond.

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Pages 34, 40

Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as The Forgotten History of Immigration
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