Saturday, August 20, 2005

Illegals and schools in Anaheim

It verged on the ridiculous when a school board in Anaheim discussed, six years ago, whether to bill foreign governments for the costs of educating the children of illegal immigrants. Advised that the attempt would never fly, the board of the Anaheim Union High School District then asked the federal government to do a census of undocumented schoolchildren and reimburse the district. One of the trustees estimated that 6,000 of Anaheim Union's 30,000 middle school and high school students were there illegally. If the district didn't have pay to educate them, he complained, it could spread an estimated $30 million in savings among its other students. (He apparently didn't understand that without those assumed 6,000 students boosting the schools' average daily attendance, the district would not have received the $30 million.)

The Anaheim debate came to nothing, and a recall effort by outraged immigrant-rights activists also faded away. Yet two contradictory things resulted. The vote brought into the open an issue that people talk about, but seldom mention publicly. At the same time, with its angry and uninformed rhetoric, the Anaheim board suppressed a reasoned examination of illegal immigration's daily effect on schools. It ought to be reopened. Anaheim Union was right about one thing: The federal government bears responsibility and should bear more cost.

The broader debate over whether illegal immigration is a net boon or burden for the U.S. grinds on, but there is no disputing that it imposes a burden on public schools. The children of illegal immigrants — who make up roughly 10% of the state's public school students — represent real costs and challenges. They are the most likely to be poor and come from uneducated families. In urban and farming districts, where their families tend to settle, they swell enrollment, requiring more portable classrooms, costly school construction bonds and year-round school schedules. They are more likely to drop out. And almost always, language is a barrier to learning. In Los Angeles schools, 44% of students are not fluent in English (though many are from legal immigrant families); in Santa Ana schools, 62%; Coachella Valley, 63%.

Here are the specifics of what the influx means in classrooms: New children arrive in any given week, at all grade levels, during the school year. Some may move from school to school. They know little or no English. A third of adult illegal immigrants have less than a ninth-grade education, so parents frequently are unable, in any language, to help their children with schoolwork or understand how the system works. The children often live with several families sharing a small apartment, making it hard even to do homework. Their nutrition is more likely to be poor; more than half lack health insurance.

The federal government, meanwhile, ratchets up demands on school achievement, pretending the problem doesn't exist and offering affected schools little in the way of leeway or special assistance.

According to a June study by the Pew Hispanic Center, of all immigrants who arrived in the last 10 years (the ones least likely to speak English), 80% are here illegally. Nearly a quarter of the nation's illegal immigrants — 2.4 million — live in California, according to the Pew center. The center estimates that 350,000 of those are under the age of 18. An additional 600,000 children are U.S. citizens born here to illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration has outstripped legal immigration for the last 10 years, and nearly a third of all illegal immigrants in the U.S. arrived in the last five years. These are not, as many suppose, mainly single men. They are mostly young working families with children.

It is no accident that the issue of the cost to schools keeps bubbling up. Katherine Smith, a trustee in the Anaheim Union district, contends that if it weren't for the crowding caused by illegal immigration, the district wouldn't have needed its recent $132-million bond measure.

Anaheim Union, like other districts, is trying to help new immigrant students, immersing them in Berlitz-style language instruction. Such programs aim for smaller classes, trying to acclimate students to their new environment and close academic as well as language gaps. Educators' time for this is limited; if students spend more than a year or two in such programs, the schools can be accused of segregation.

At a community conference in Los Angeles last month, African Americans complained bitterly that illegal immigrants were crowding schools and absorbing resources needed for black students. Though school districts are paid by the number of students attending, the state's overall school spending is fixed. It could offer more per pupil if there were substantially fewer students statewide.

This year, state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) introduced a bill that would have required schools to ask for proof of legal residency, and report the numbers of illegal immigrants. The bill died in committee.

Federal law rightly requires states to provide an equal education for students who are illegal immigrants. It does no one good to have an uneducated subpopulation, or to have children wandering the streets during school hours. Trying to identify illegal students individually, as Anaheim wanted, would frighten families away from the schools. But that doesn't let the federal government off the hook.

Government has demanded through the federal No Child Left Behind Act that schools dramatically raise the performance of all disadvantaged children, a demand made without making adequate allowances or taking financial responsibility for the singular burden of illegal immigration. There are valid statistical methods to estimate undocumented populations (as the Pew study did). Washington needs to at least confront the scope of the problem and admit a responsibility to help.

If Congress and the White House could agree on reforms to effectively control and monitor the immigrant flow, some of the pressure on schools would ease. If not, Washington has even more obligation to compensate schools for its inaction.