America’s Public Schools: Canaries in the Coal Mine of the Biden Border Crisis

By Todd Bensman on April 3, 2023

The following is adaptated from the new book by CIS Fellow Todd Bensman, Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History.

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Public schools will be the first place most Americans see, feel, and suffer from the Biden border crisis. Local schools face the most immediately visible impacts because a main feature of the Biden border crisis, and also of the earlier Trump swell (2018–2019), was children in family groups coming to exploit the Flores loophole (a 2015 revised court settlement requiring government release of detained immigrant children and their guardians within 21 days).

Cleveland Independent School District children returning to their homes in a scene played out daily in the rapidly expanding Colony Ridge community of Liberty County Texas
Cleveland Independent School District children returning to their homes in a scene played out daily in the rapidly expanding Colony Ridge community of Liberty County, Texas. All photos by Todd Bensman.

It’s impossible to determine from available public records how many children came in among roughly two million people in family groups that Border Patrol apprehended and likely stayed from 2018 through 2022. But these events, combined with the arrival of some 800,000 "unaccompanied minors", added up to two million to the nation’s 49.5 million students who attend American public schools in just those few short years. A 1982 Supreme Court ruling required enrollment regardless of immigration status, so school districts have been taking in every kid who shows up no matter their numbers, unfunded new costs, and hardships associated with pressure on educators to maintain high academic scoring.

For a glimpse into what those kinds of hardships look like under the pressure of migrant child surges, parents throughout America whose children attend public schools need look no farther than Liberty County, Texas, and its Cleveland Independent School District (CISD), some 50 miles northeast of Houston.

Just in the last five years, Liberty County and its CISD’s 143 square miles have drawn tens of thousands of illegal immigrant families with school-age children. Where thick timberlands were clear-cut rose a vast jumble of single- and double-wide trailers on low stilts, hand-hewn shacks made of leftover construction material, and parked motor homes. The community is called “Colony Ridge”. It sprawls over some 35 square miles of unincorporated former timber company lands all around the outskirts of old settler towns like Plum Grove, Cleveland, Dayton, and Splendora, nary a group of trees in sight now.

Upwards of 50,000 mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos, probably many more — nobody knows, really — by late 2022 were living on some 30,000 homestead lots they purchased in recent years from Terrenos Houston, the land development company started by an “original” named William Henry “Trey” Harris and brother John Harris a decade earlier. From just 2019 through 2022, Colony Ridge more than doubled in size to almost 20,000 acres. Another doubling was in the works for 2023, with 20,000 more lots under development.

Flags of origin countries
Flags of origin countries like this one from Cuba but also El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras fly over homes in the Colony Ridge community of Liberty County, Texas.

A significant portion of the new population that bought Terrenos lots are illegally present, according to the new settlers themselves, local police, school officials, teachers, and other residents. I saw flags of foreign nations fly here and there over dwellings representing El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. This is what’s known as a “colonia”, or colony, only one that is far enough inland from the border to escape Texas laws that ban them.

The population of Latinos drawn to Liberty County ballooned after 2017 into the 40,000 and 50,000 range when Terrenos Houston acquired vast new tracts of timber company land and, on Spanish-language media platforms with international reach, began marketing lot purchases with its unique “owner-to-owner method”.

The method held a powerful appeal for illegal immigrants who heard it (and for anyone with low income and bad credit scores): They could buy land with less than $1,000 down directly from Terrenos, skipping traditional bank mortgage requirements that borrowers prove a history of legal income and financial stability. Of course, interest charged on the owner loans might range to 13 percent or reportedly even higher, and the company would foreclose after just a few missed payments.

But obviously, plenty of buyers believed the Terrenos Houston website promise that buying a quarter or three-quarter acre here, and then a do-it-yourself dwelling is “the perfect solution for you to become the owner of your own land in the United States”.

In tacit acknowledgement that large numbers of new Colony Ridge residents speak no or limited English, street signs like this one are often provided in Spanish

In tacit acknowledgement that large numbers of new Colony Ridge residents speak no or limited English, street signs like this one are often provided in Spanish.

I explored the case of Liberty County and its booming Colony Ridge development because it makes for an apt emblematic harbinger of the kind of change that sudden explosive growth in illegal alien populations can portend for citizens and residents already living in receiving communities. Liberty County may stand as a rather extreme example of this kind of explosive growth, mainly because of the unique real estate opportunities that catered to and drew illegal immigrants only here.

But therein is the value. To varying degrees up to the extreme case of Liberty County, a great many other preexisting communities in America already are seeing very significant sudden growth in illegal alien populations from the Biden border crisis.

It’s too early in the Biden border crisis to fully calculate the fast-moving impacts until the growth slows or stops. But not in the ultimate laboratory of Liberty County. Most of those who bought in and live in Liberty County did not come in the great Biden border crisis of 2021-present, but in the five or 10 years past. So the area is there for ready examination as to what some secondary impacts may look and feel like after sudden high growth of illegal immigrant settlement.

Americans can expect to feel the change in qualify-of-life metrics as Liberty County certainly has.

But probably the very first area of civic life where most Americans will experience the impact of the Biden border crisis will be in the public schools.

The ills there take the form of classroom and school overcrowding that require portable classroom farms, sharp spending increases to hire new teachers and bus drivers, continual requests for voters to approve bonds to build new schools, fallouts from language barriers and uneven education levels, less individualized teacher time per student, poorer academic performances for all, and public safety concerns.

Opening the Book on Education in “Hyper-Growth” Texas District

Those afflictions started to hit the Cleveland Independent School District when student population exploded during the 2016–2017 school year. Hurricane Harvey had devastated wide swaths of the nearby Houston metropolitan area, creating an enduring demand for illegal alien reconstruction labor. Terrenos Houston stepped up land acquisition and sales to catch that wind in the sail.

In 2019, the Texas Education Agency labeled CISD as a “hyper-growth” district.

CSID Superintendent Stephen McCanless
CSID Superintendent Stephen McCanless.

“This was always known as a quiet little country town. I mean, it really was,” Superintendent Stephen McCanless told me during a long candid interview at CISD administration headquarters in Cleveland in May 2022. “This was a pass-through on the way north to Livingston to go camping, or on the way north to Lufkin. You stopped here to get gas and eat, but it’s always been a quiet, blue-collar community.”

In the few years since Hurricane Harvey, the quaint country CISD of four K-12 schools has morphed into an almost unrecognizable beast of 12 schools, some of which had to be doubled in size, and plans for 20 more schools and ever-expanding farms of portable classrooms.

“Is it all because of immigration?” McCanless asked rhetorically. “I’m not going to sit here and say that we have other students moving in as well. Those are our highest percentage of enrollments.”

Data reflecting those enrollments remove all doubt as to how torrential that growth was.

For the 2011–2012 school year, a year now regarded fondly as the good old days when a local Dairy Queen was sufficient to serve as the main high school hangout, CISD enrolled 3,693 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. About 40 percent were Hispanic, 45 percent white, and 12 percent black. Fast-forward a decade to 2021–2022. Total enrollments had nearly tripled to 10,875, of which 9,275 were Hispanic, pushing 90 percent, district records show.

The trajectory’s end is nowhere in sight for CISD and, to varying degrees, for districts across America. CISD is projecting yet another doubling in size by 2026, which would bring the student body from the current 10,875 students to more than 20,000.

In 2022, it was projecting a $1.2 billion spend to build the 20 new schools over 10 years.

McCanless had to admit that “there are days in my office that I’m, uh, it’s difficult.”

Successive bond elections in the Cleveland Independent School District are paying for an unending expansion of classroom space like this Middle School in the Spring of 2022
Successive bond elections in the Cleveland Independent School District are paying for an unending expansion of classroom space like this middle school in the spring of 2022.

New students were pouring in every day through mid-2022: 100, 200, 300 every month. After one Christmas break in 2021, school reopened to 1,200 new students, McCanless recalled.

“Every day, our teachers see another student and you know, it’s ‘here’s Johnny”, he said. “And, ‘welcome to class, Johnny, we’re so glad to have you. I don’t have a desk for you. But here’s a chair.’ So we’ve been dealing with a lot of that.”

Most of the new students could not speak English, according to district data reflecting English as a second language curriculum and as limited English proficient. The percentage who couldn’t speak English proficiently rose from 20 percent in the 2011-2012 school year to nearly 55 percent in 2021-2022.

That’s “extremely high”, McCanless conceded and so was the district’s need for bilingual teachers to staff a dual language program and special education programs where large numbers of the kids are taught half a day in English and half a day in Spanish. A nationwide shortage of bilingual teachers drove CISD to unusual lengths. It started hiring foreign-born teachers from Colombia, Venezuela, and even Italy and importing them to Texas on H-1B specialist worker visas the school district has to sponsor.

Recruiting them proved so difficult the district pays $4,000 annual stipends to help keep them around when money could not be tighter. Red tape at the State Department to acquire and keep them requires a full-time attorney.

“But we need them, so we work hard,” the superintendent told me.

ESL made up more than half of all school curricula, too. Almost the entire teaching staff is required to obtain state ESL certification or an equivalent one. The training for that is expensive and time-consuming and requires constant management. A majority of the parents speak limited English, too, if at all. That’s an educational minus for the kids.

“They don’t engage with us a lot at our meetings and activities,” which is a state requirement, McCanless said. The reason? Some fear that school officials will report them to ICE, he explained.

“That’s one reason they want to stay away. They’re afraid, but that’s not what Cleveland ISD is about. We’re here to educate children and build school-to-home community relationships.”

Shoehorning a Fit

A teacher who used to work in the CISD and now works for another one in East Texas, speaking on condition that she not be identified, told me she realized one-room schoolhouse life was for sure over when, on the eve of a big basketball game between rival schools, the district installed metal detectors at the doors.

“That was totally new to me. I was like, what? What! I’d never seen anything like that,” the teacher told me. “I was like, ‘what are y’all doing? Someone was thinking, there’s this big rivalry, so ... guns or knives.’”

New students were pouring in every day through mid-2022: 100, 200, 300 every month. After Christmas break in 2021, school reopened to 1,200 new students.

Many of the newcomers came in not fitting well in a school. One girl told the teacher she had reached a strictly transactional agreement to marry a U.S. citizen boy so she could get permanent immigration status and go to college after graduation. Others were disciplinary cases kicked out of Houston schools.

“We had our entrepreneurs on campus,” the teacher said, explaining that this was a euphemism for drug dealer. “When a kid is coming in 18 years old and has four or five credits, why would they come back to high school and not just get their GED? The registrar would tell us, ‘This kid’s coming in for business.’ I mean, if your income is school-based, then ... you know.”

Superintendent McCanless acknowledged problems like that but insisted they were isolated and did not constitute organized gang activity in his view.

“Now, do we have some little groups that want to cause some trouble and do some behavior that I consider criminal? Yes, we’ve had them. And we have dealt with them,” he said. “And I have expelled them. And I told the parents you can find an education somewhere, but it won’t be here.”

There’d be 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who spoke no English, hadn’t been to school in years, and had to start from Dick-and-Jane scratch, the teacher recalled. McCanless told me students like this were categorized as “newcomers”.

There is already evidence elsewhere that such newcomers are reaching other districts. In May 2022, New York City education officials grappling with older illiterate teen immigrants who have gone years without formal education agreed to launch a pilot program that would all have 400 “newcomers” fan out to identified high schools where they can learn English.

“Texas Education Agency says they have a right to a free public education,” McCanless said. “And I can’t put a 14-year-old in a second-grade class, so we put them in an age-appropriate grade level and we give them all the supports we can, and then you’re like, ‘how do we teach a 14-year-old how to read!?’ I mean, that should have been learned in first or second grade. But we have to do it. We’re doing it. We have some now. And then the state tells us they’re expected to take the state test!”

“How are they doing on the tests?” I asked.

“How do you think?” McCanless replied.

Perhaps there are not enough Anglo “originals” even in the schools anymore. I couldn’t readily find any to interview, and some of the old-timers in Plum Grove told me many turned to home-schooling or moved away.

The percentage of white students in CISD fell from 45 percent a decade earlier to less than 10 percent in 2021-2022.

Out of Space

Some rarefied media reporting does point to signs that many other American school districts are feeling the uncomfortable pressure of illegal-immigrant student growth like CISD, with varying degrees of consequence.

There will be many more as the Biden border crisis goes on.

For instance, in and around New York City, a significant surge of 5,000 immigrant children flooded into four counties in a single 11-month span through August 2021, posing a $139 million additional burden on New York taxpayers to educate them. The arrivals of mostly teenage boys “is creating a classroom crisis that is strapping educational resources, costing taxpayers millions in un-budgeted dollars, and aiding gang-recruiting efforts”, the New York Post reported.

The percentage who couldn’t speak English proficiently rose from 20 percent in the 2011-2012 school year to nearly 55 percent in 2021-2022

In Austin Independent School District, teachers protested in April 2022 about a 400-student influx of immigrant teenagers from Central America at its International High School and Eastside Early College High School campus. Teachers complained they were left to give instruction in hallways and conference rooms.

CISD has handled the new enrollments in the usual ways that many Americans should already be seeing in their own systems.

This district has bought acres of portable classrooms using general operation funds, the first nine in 2016, records show. By 2022, the district had spent nearly $10 million for more than 60 portables containing more than 250 classrooms spread among the schools.

That stop-gap measure wasn’t close to sufficient.

The CISD had to mount a parallel strategy of calling bond elections to build schools.

In May 2017, district voters passed a first bond election for $85 million to build two new elementary schools and to double the size of Cleveland High School. Two years later, administrators went back to voters, hat in hand, asking for another one. That failed in May 2019, but one for $198 million passed that November.

By November 2021, with the Biden border crisis raging beyond all known bounds, voters apparently had had enough. They rejected a third bond for $150 million, some voters feeling fed-up with the Colony Ridge population boom, according to public posts on social media.

“This country needs to uphold its laws and provide for its own,” voter Regina Ott wrote on the CISD Facebook page where the district conceded defeat.

“I am all for legal immigration, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting a better life for their family. The U.S.A. is overwhelmed right now and needs a break to regroup and review our situation. We are fast becoming a third-world country ourselves. We cannot save the world. I apologize if this offends anyone. It is not meant to. It’s just the truth.”

Wrote Kristy Morales, “How about not worrying about making more schools, but get immigration out here kicking out all the illegals who are taking up space and trashing the area.”

As for the 2021 bond election defeat, McCanless blamed voter misunderstanding that the recent years of tax increases were tied to rising home value appraisals, not any extra burden put on by past bonds.

“It’s all part of marketing and messaging. What we wanted them to know is we’re not raising the tax rate. It’s zero,” he said. “The messaging didn’t sink in. They’re afraid of taxes, period.”

McCanless and his school board were already busy planning the next bond election for the November 2022 ballot, this one for $115 million.

There was no choice. The monthly crush of new kids and enrollment projections put unremitting pressure on the district for space.

Most American families in school districts that experience immigrant child influxes will end up picking up big new tax tabs for them. CISD is an exception to the rule because, whereas parents in other overwhelmed school districts will end up paying more in school taxes to support illegal immigrant education, most of the CISD newcomers actually support the costs because they own the property from which school taxes are automatically assessed and paid through county governments.

The number of rooftops paying those school taxes into CISD has expanded so much and so rapidly that rates actually have declined per capita during the years of growth, my analysis of tax rates shows.

In other words, Colony Ridge’s new legal and illegal immigrants are almost all homeowners who seem to be supporting CISD for their own children rather than burdening longer-term residents who had lived there before the population boom.

But that won’t be the case elsewhere.

In other overwhelmed American school districts, far fewer illegal immigrants have the opportunity to buy land like they do from Terrenos in Liberty County.

Those already there will pay for the newcomers.

Costs and Consequences

If CISD can serve as a harbinger, those other American school districts also will pay in other ways.

The district has to get creative to schedule security when 2,000 kids fill the hallways during class changes. Maintenance staff is always short to clean bathrooms, classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, and outside grounds. Bus rides of just a few miles to and from Colony Ridge homesteads can take more than an hour with the new traffic.

When schools let out one day, I saw miles-long lines of private vehicles waiting their turns to pick up children.

But more seriously, a broad language barrier plagues CISD schools and can only suppress academic achievement, although McCanless denies this.

Texas caps the number of students per teacher at 22 in grade school, to ensure teachers can tend each child enough, but schools are freer to break the cap in higher grades. At CISD, some student-teacher ratios range into the upper 30s per teacher for certain core classes.

“That’s crowd control, not education,” the teacher who used to work in the district told me.

She recalled having to sit kids on the floors, up against walls. Academic abilities and experience range so widely that teachers can be forced to provide instruction that caters to the lowest common denominator that wouldn’t exist if all students had come up through a common system with universal standards.

The unspoken truth about teaching foreign kids of wide proficiency ranges and years in the classroom is that “you teach to the middle”, meaning high-performance students in those classrooms will not be challenged.

“When you double a teacher’s class load, you’re not just doubling the kids in the room, it’s the accommodations, the data you have to collect, adaptations ... and how to make sure Johnny is not touching Suzy when they’re all on top of each other in class.”

“Teachers don’t come back from Christmas.”

Involving parents in improving academic performance requires punching through a language barrier, she said. “Having to contact parents when the parents don’t speak English ... you can’t even send them a letter. Anything you send out on social media, you have to send out in Spanish.”

State accountability ratings of CISD and its individual campuses have fared about as well as anyone might expect of a student body that is made up almost entirely of foreigners from developing nations. The last available school academic performance reports I could find in mid-2022, which are based on state testing, show scores significantly below state average percentages for meeting grade level.

Tracking academic performance from before the enrollment boom to 2022 was hobbled by the introduction of a new scoring system in 2018 and the cancellation of standardized tests in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. In the 2018-2019 school year, the first year of an A-to-F grading system and the last year of scoring, CISD overall and Cleveland High School’s state accountability ratings came in at a “C”.

The grade for Cleveland High came with an alarming statistic: 49.8 percent of its students were considered to be at risk of dropping out of high school. Cleveland Middle School came in at a “D”, with 55.8 percent of its 2,238 students considered at risk of dropping out.

It should come as no surprise if performance scores don’t improve in coming years because these students are taking standardized tests in a language they barely know. The teacher I interviewed said the state can issue standardized-test waivers to monolingual students if they complete a “special project”.

This teacher regards the whole system as a “a little sketchy”.

McCanless insists that academic performance has remained on an even keel, rarely affected by the onslaught of immigrants. Many families of kids who were there first and found themselves overwhelmed by these changes have simply fled if their families could, said Plum Grove’s combative former mayor, Lee Ann Walker.

Many switched to home-schooling. Others enrolled in charter schools that are opening up. Still others have moved with their families to school districts as far away from CISD has they can get.

There should be little doubt, whether anyone ever wants to admit it, that this “originals-out-border-children-in exchange” will transform American public education if the border flood of families and unaccompanied minors continues unabated at this rate.