Equity & Diversity Opinion

Immigrant Children Have a Right to a Good Education

By Eric T. Schneiderman — March 11, 2016 3 min read
Undocumented Central American immigrants board a bus after being released from a family detention center in San Antonio last summer. This year, the federal government launched a program to provide immigrant families in a few major cities, including New York, with opportunities to retain lawyers and facilitate schooling for their children.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The New York State Constitution requires a good education for all children.

Unfortunately, the promise of equal access to education is being broken for many immigrant children living in New York as some of our school bureaucracies fail to provide them with the same education as children born in the United States.

In 2014, many of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who had arrived from Central and South America were settling with their extended families (or being resettled by the federal government) throughout New York state. My office soon began receiving reports that some of these children were encountering unprecedented barriers to enrolling in and attending their local schools.

So, for the past two years, we have been investigating dozens of school districts across New York for potentially discriminating against immigrant children by denying them equal access to an elementary and secondary education.

We have found that many districts have been stopping immigrant children from entering school or shunting them off to non-degree-bearing programs—despite the fact that state law grants everyone under the age of 21 the right to attend public school, regardless of immigration status or national origin. Many of these non-degree programs do not even offer students an opportunity to obtain a GED credential, let alone a high school diploma.

Providing all children with a quality education is the foundation of the American dream."

Some districts were actively trying to prevent them from becoming part of the school community. For example, enrollment for these children was often unreasonably and repeatedly delayed, in direct contradiction of state regulations.

Discrimination against immigrant students is unacceptable and, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, unconstitutional. Thankfully, since our investigation began, we have made significant progress in breaking down these barriers and getting thousands of students off the streets and into the classroom.

One year ago, my office reached a settlement with 20 school districts throughout the state to ensure they stopped asking about students’ citizenship and immigration status in their enrollment materials, which can frighten immigrant children into abandoning their efforts to get admitted.

In March 2015, we secured a settlement with the 7,500-student Hempstead Union Free School District, which had been delaying the enrollment of these students through a variety of methods, including overly restrictive policies on proof of immunization, age, and residency—in violation of applicable laws and regulations—as well as regularly telling students or their guardians that there was simply no room at district schools for them. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to retain an ombudsman to provide new internal oversight over its enrollment policies.

So far, the results are encouraging. By the start of this school year, Hempstead had provided additional tutoring or extracurricular help to all the affected students who asked for such help. The district also hired a full-time monitor to oversee the enrollment process and trained every staff member involved in the enrollment process on proper procedures and rules.

In late February, my office announced a similar settlement with the Westbury Union Free School District in Nassau County to prevent the diversion of immigrant students into non-degree-bearing alternative education programs.

Our efforts have been assisted by our partners in the state government. In December 2014, the state’s education board issued new regulations that gave school districts more clarity and uniformity in how they must enroll and process students. Before the board issued these emergency regulations, many districts were putting unnecessary roadblocks—including strict requirements for guardianship and residency documentation—in the way of immigrant students who wanted to register.

But we still have more work to do. My office continues to pursue our lawsuit against the 10,000-student Utica City School District for engaging in practices similar to those we found in Westbury. And we will continue to take action against other districts engaging in these unlawful practices.

School districts cannot place arbitrary impediments and barriers in the way of immigrants and refugees who are struggling to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. Providing all children with a quality education is the foundation of the American dream. Every child taken off the streets and placed into a classroom raises up the whole community and makes our state stronger and more just.

A Spanish translation of this essay also appears in print and online at El Diario.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Keeping Schoolhouse Doors Open for Immigrant Children


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Wisconsin District Bans Pride Flags From Classrooms, Pronouns in Emails
The superintendent said the decision, which is facing pushback, was reaffirming a policy that was already in place.
2 min read
Flags are displayed as the Newberg Education Association gathers with community members ahead of the Newberg School Board vote on whether to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags at the school, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Newberg, Ore.
Flags are displayed at a community gathering in Newberg, Ore.<br/>
Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP
Equity & Diversity Two Okla. Districts Get Downgraded Accreditations for Violating State's Anti-CRT Law
The Tulsa and Mustang public school systems are the first to feel the sting of a state law that restricts discussion of race and racism in schools.
8 min read
Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks during a Tulsa Public Schools board meeting in Tulsa, Okla. on March 5, 2018.
Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks during a Tulsa Public Schools board meeting in Tulsa, Okla., in March 2018.<br/>
Joey Johnson/Tulsa World via AP
Equity & Diversity Florida to Schools: Don't Follow Federal LGBTQ Protections
Florida advised school districts to ignore protections for LGBTQ students the Biden administration is trying to implement.
1 min read
Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in Miami Beach, Fla.
Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in Miami Beach, Fla.
Lynne Sladky/AP
Equity & Diversity The Case of the Missing Data on AP Students
The College Board raised eyebrows by removing public racial and ethnic data on AP students. It will restore the data this fall.
5 min read
Image of data and demographics.