As litigation over Alabama’s tough new immigration law continues, federal civil rights authorities have ramped up pressure on the state’s public schools to show they are not violating federal law by denying students access to schooling because of their immigration status.
Saying Alabama’s immigration law “may chill or discourage student participation” in public education, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez—who is the head of the civil rights division for the U.S. Department of Justice—last week ordered 39 school districts in the state to submit detailed enrollment data to his office, including information about students who have withdrawn from school since the current academic year began. Those districts were targeted because they have a “considerable number of Hispanic students,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
But Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange told school superintendents late last week to hold off on providing the data until the Justice Department cites what legal authority it has for requesting the information. In a Nov. 2 letter to Mr. Perez, Mr. Strange wrote that he is “perplexed and troubled” by the demand for student-enrollment data and questioned the Justice Department’s standing to ask for it.
In a Nov. 4 letter to the Alabama attorney general, Mr. Perez wrote that the Justice Department has requested the information to review compliance under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The letter also said the request for information is similar to statewide student enrollment data released to the press by Alabama last week. District leaders got no further clarity after Mr. Strange wrote back to Mr. Perez Nov. 4 asserting that the federal official had failed to cite legal authority to compel school districts to provide the enrollment data.
Caught in the Middle
The Obama administration has sued Alabama over its tough, new immigration law, which took effect Sept. 29. The law includes a provision requiring school districts to ask new students to show proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status when they enroll and report that information to the state department of education.
School districts across the state have reported widespread absences and withdrawals of Latino students this school year, especially in the days after Sept. 28 when a U.S. District Court judge in Birmingham upheld that provision. That part of the law has since been put on hold by a federal appeals court in Atlanta, and some districts have since seen an uptick in Hispanic students returning to school. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta will likely hear full arguments in the case later this year.
In the meantime, school district leaders around the state have become increasingly frustrated as they try to abide by both state and federal law while the dispute over the immigration law plays out, said Eric Mackey, the executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, a Montgomery-based group that represents local school chiefs. The data request from the Justice Department that the state attorney general is now challenging is just the latest example, he said.
“Our educators need to make sure that teaching and learning is happening every day in their schools, but they keep getting sidetracked by these legal issues and things that seem to be changing on a daily basis,” said Mr. Mackey.
The Justice Department letter to superintendents specifically requests that school districts report information about students’ race, national origin, and status as English-language learners. Besides asking for information about students who have withdrawn, the Justice Department is seeking data on students who have had even one “unexplained” absence this year. School districts have until Nov. 14 to respond. Additionally, Mr. Perez asks the districts to provide monthly reports on withdrawals and unexplained absences on an indefinite basis.
Local school officials who received the Justice Department letter said they are disturbed by its implications.
“That they would assume that there’s been some movement to discourage students from coming to school is very troubling to us,” said Tom Salter, a spokesman for the 32,000-student school system in Montgomery, the state capital. “We’ve been trying our best to contact families and assure them that they are welcome in our schools. It doesn’t matter what color they are, or where they are from, or if they have documentation.”
Mr. Salter said Montgomery schools have not experienced a mass exodus of Hispanic students, whose current enrollment is about 1,250, but noted that roughly 40 Hispanic families have withdrawn their children and not returned.
In Birmingham’s 25,000-student system—where district officials also received the Justice Department letter—about 72 Latino students have withdrawn and not returned since the beginning of the school year, said spokeswoman Michaelle Chapman. The district enrolls about 500 Hispanic students, and most of them are English-language learners, she said.
Like Montgomery schools, Birmingham has made a concerted effort to communicate directly with parents of Hispanic students and assure them that sending their children to school won’t jeopardize their families.
“We want all children to be in school and to take advantage of the educational opportunities we offer,” Ms. Chapman said.
Mr. Mackey said superintendents initially interpreted the letter as a warning that their districts might be targeted for legal action.
But Justice Department officials have since spoken to a few superintendents and reassured them that is not the case, he said.
“They were told that they had done nothing wrong and that the Justice Department is simply collecting data [related to the litigation],” Mr. Mackey said.
Ms. Hinojosa declined to comment on the specific purpose of the data request, other than to say that the Justice Department is responsible for enforcing federal laws that guarantee equal access to public education.
Still, Mr. Mackey said the data request itself will be a difficult undertaking for school systems, should it proceed. Some of the information the Justice Department is seeking, such as national origin of students and reasons for unexplained absences, is not collected at all by schools. And the request to submit enrollment reports on a monthly basis for an indefinite period of time is “egregious,” he said.
Immigration advocates welcomed the Justice Department’s request for student data.
“We are very appreciative of the Justice Department’s presence here,” said Isabel Rubio, the executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, an immigrant advocacy group based in Birmingham. “And we appreciate the level of detail they are asking for because one of the best ways we are going to be able to fully understand the impact of this law is how it has impacted students coming to school.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Justice Dept. Pressures Ala. Districts for Data