Schools Undergo Comprehensive Immigration Reform

By John Wahala on February 19, 2016

The Washington Post recently reported on the transition underway in public schools across the country. Struggling to accommodate a growing influx of students from immigrant families, they are devoting significant resources to social services. The effort goes far beyond English-language instruction to include mental health care, workshops on family reunification and housing, and regular counseling sessions where newcomers can share their experiences with peers in similar situations.

A D.C.-area principal told the paper that the most powerful thing educators can do is to make these students feel safe. They are alienated and impoverished. Many are separated from their parents and have nowhere else to turn. They are actively recruited by gangs that have ties to their homelands. A local activist explained that it is "critical for schools to provide a holistic, comprehensive support system" for these newcomers.

The responsibility of doing so changes the mission of the school. And the number of schools tasked with this burden is growing. The Post cited federal education data showing a total of 630,000 immigrant students nationwide. But that figure only includes foreign-born children who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for less than three years. When you count all of the students from immigrant households (including those born here), the number exceeds 10 million. In other words, more than one of every five public school students in the United States is from an immigrant household. This figure corresponds with Census records that show one of every five school-age children speaks a foreign language at home. That number is higher in immigrant-rich states like California, where 44 percent of all school-age children speak a foreign language.

Obviously not all children who come from immigrant households require the "holistic" support system that is being demanded by activists. But many do, like the recent unaccompanied children arrivals from Central America who were part of the illegal surge that began in 2013. So far, nearly 100,000 have been resettled in various parts of the country by the current administration. Thousands more are crossing each month with little interference from authorities. Fleeing poverty, many come to find work in the United States and are surprised they are even required to attend school.

Their enrollment not only alters the mission of these schools but, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan points out in the article, exerts significant fiscal strain on state and local governments. School administrators acknowledge all of this but never criticize the federal government's immigration policies. Daniel Domenech, executive director of the school superintendents' association, explains in the article that "districts will bend over backward to accommodate and provide for these students whatever services they need." Prince George's County, Md., Superintendent Kevin Maxwell even condemned the enforcement efforts of federal authorities that resulted in a drop in attendance last month.

Given the obstacles they face, the poor academic performance of immigrant students is not surprising and has been well documented. English-language fluency, test scores, and graduation rates lag far behind. Some researchers have even called the situation a crisis that threatens democracy itself. But more troubling than slow academic progress is the way mass immigration is shifting the educators' focus. When resources and time are diverted from teaching, the quality of education deteriorates. Learning becomes secondary when teachers are trying to keep children safe and well-adjusted.

Little has been written on how this new role for the schools affects American students. The Post article makes no reference to it, except for a line noting that the NAACP objected to the creation of two public schools exclusively for English-language learners. Immigration occurs through networks. Most newcomers come because they have family or friends who have settled in a particular area and, through these connections, the immigrant population quickly expands. There are schools that had no immigrant students 10 or 20 years ago that are now majority foreign-born. In response, many native-born families move to other school districts, making the school even more segregated. Their decision is a practical one based on the best interests of their children. It need not, and is likely not, driven by racism. But there are American students who remain in these transformed schools. And their education must take a back seat to the grand social experiment being conducted by our federal immigration program.