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The conversation we can no longer ignore

By Maurice Washington

In June 1982, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Plyler v. Doe, holding that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status. Additionally, school districts may not bar students from enrolling in public elementary and secondary schools based on the citizenship or immigration status of the student or their parent or guardian; and school districts may not request information about the citizenship or immigration status of students or their families with the purpose or result of denying them access to educational opportunities.

With their legal rights to an education guaranteed, an ever-increasing number of illegal immigrant children, combined with more children constantly arriving here in the U.S. legally, began having a major impact on traditional educational policies across the nation.

Today, the long-term impact of this important decision is evident across the country as immigration continues to be the driving force in America’s population growth. The number of children from immigrant households in schools is now so high in some areas that it raises profound questions about assimilation. What’s more, immigration has added enormously to the number of public school students who are in poverty and the number who speak a foreign language. This cannot help but create significant challenges for schools, often in areas already struggling to educate students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In addition to adding large numbers of students in poverty and for whom English is not their first language, immigration also creates significant challenges for schools because the immigrant students often have lower incomes, making it unlikely that tax revenue grows correspondingly with enrollment in these areas with large numbers of immigrants.

Of course, we need to educate immigrant children already in the country. Nearly one out of every four children in public schools is from an immigrant household, so how these children do is vitally important not only to them, but to our country’s future. It may also be worth noting that in 2015, 83.5 percent of these children were born in the U.S. However, a key immigration policy question for our nation going forward is this: Does it make sense to continue to admit a million additional legal permanent immigrants each year and to tolerate widespread illegal immigration without regard to the absorption capacity of our schools?

This is true both in terms of our ability to educate, as well as to assimilate children from immigrant backgrounds.

As a nation, we have witnessed outrage after outrage during the past 15 to 20 years as our once-workable immigration system has fallen apart.

Today’s headlines constantly carry reports on the ongoing problems related to the estimated 14 million plus illegal immigrants living in the United States. The list includes better protecting our nation’s southern border, soaring costs of billion-dollar entitlement programs, increasing pressure to grant citizenship to undocumented residents, and the criminal consequences of more and more states, cities, and other government entities adopting “sanctuary” policies.

What is not traditionally in the news, is that the breakdown of our nation’s immigration laws and policies has put a huge strain on America’s educational system, especially grades kindergarten through grade 12.

The problem can be summed up by stating that from big cities to small towns, immigration overload has adversely impacted the carrying capacity of many schools. This reality means that countless young people, both natives and new immigrants, are paying for Washington, D.C.’s failure to get the immigration problem under control. All of this has occurred with little national and local debate over the ability of our schools to educate and integrate hundreds of thousands of new students into our society.

Our educational system is greatly affected by continued high rates of immigration and needs to be part of the national debate regarding realistic immigration reform.

Can such a goal be achieved? The answer to that question is elusive. It will take a new priority commitment from our local and national leaders to make it a reality. If we can get our country’s immigration system back on a responsible and workable track, the reward will be far less overcrowded schools, far fewer overburdened teachers, less stressful learning environments for students, and greater educational accomplishments across the board.

Finally, the abrupt nationwide shift to distance learning due to the pandemic caused a further decline in student learning and widening of the achievement gap. Educators were left scrambling, often with little or no budget, to acquire needed resources for virtual instruction. As a result, hundreds of students in South Carolina and across the country have been left behind, many of whom were already facing obstacles, such as food insecurity, family instability, and/or homelessness, to obtaining the education they deserve.

One local Charleston County School District elementary school principal recently told me, “With students being low-income, some didn’t have internet access, some didn't have access to working technology and were continuously having issues, and some families didn't have experience with using the internet, so students were consistently having problems with doing their work.”

The effects of poverty on education are numerous. Lack of access to technology is just one reason students are struggling with distance learning. Eighty-five percent of surveyed teachers said their disengaged students did not have a parent or guardian who could oversee their education during distance learning. This disproportionately affects students in low-income households.

Data taken from South Carolina Ready’s most recent report, reveals the percentage of students not reading on grade level in Charleston County school District should be concerning to everyone.

* All Students — 50.9 percent

* Black/African American — 82.1 percent

* Hispanic — 75.0 percent

* White — 25.9 percent

* Multilingual Learner — 77.5 percent

* Special Education — 90.4 percent

* Pupils in Poverty — 74.5 percent

Many of CCSD students are Title 1 so they are mostly low income. A lot of our parents are essential workers — they work in grocery stores, the people who stock the shelves — so they’re not able to be home as much as parents in other communities.

Research has shown that education is a key stepping-stone to rising above poverty and pursuing a better life. As someone who grew-up in a very low-income family, I know first-hand the barriers to education and how such barriers may extend the poverty cycle to another generation.

Equipping children with the education they deserve is a key step toward eradicating poverty. It is not just about teaching math and reading to students. Although those things are important, children will not overcome poverty by simply learning how to add. Students need to be taught basic life skills such as communication, persistence and negotiation. This will ultimately help them make long-term decisions that lead to better opportunities.

Kids don’t just need to learn because it’s fun. They deserve to learn because it offers them a chance to live … achance literally to change the course of their lives.

Maurice Washington is chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party and former Charleston City Council member. He is president CEO of Trust Management, LLC, and is committed to a life of public service.


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