The state Education Department has issued a guidance letter to school districts following a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis last month that found at least 20 percent of districts may be unlawfully barring or discouraging immigrant students from enrolling. The NYCLU wrote to 139 school districts “with problematic enrollment practices” to clarify the law, as well as the state Education Department. The group, which surveyed the nearly 700 school districts in New York last school year, said it had tried a number of times to reach out to the state Education Department on the issue but hadn’t been successful.
The Education Department’s guidance letter says the agency has received questions from schools on the matter and clarifies that students can’t be denied a free public education on the basis of their immigration status.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 18 years ago that the 14th Amendment guarantees the right to a free public education, and states are in violation if they deny undocumented children the same education given to United States citizens, according to the NYCLU. State law guarantees a free public education to children older than 5 and younger than 21 who have not earned a high school diploma. Schools can ask for a student’s age and address but not about a student’s or parent’s immigration status. The 139 districts had been asking either directly or indirectly for information on students’ immigration status, NYCLU said.
“We applaud the State Education Department for providing guidance on the law and the United States Constitution to help ensure that all of New York’s children are able to attend school and get an education,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “The Supreme Court ruled 28 years ago that all children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status. It’s critical that every school district in the state is aware of that and doesn’t unknowingly exclude immigrant children.”
Udi Ofer, NYCLU advocacy director, said dozens of school districts wanted to follow the law but weren’t sure how to do it. Many districts updated their policies based on what they learned from the advocacy group.
The Spencerport Central School District near Rochester no longer has the following on its student registration checklist: “If your child is not a U.S. citizen by birth, please bring your child’s I-94 form [or]Resident Alien Card. If the card is expired it will not be accepted.” The Fairport Central School District outside Rochester got rid of the requirement that students who are not citizens present I-94 forms or alien registration cards to schools, NYCLU said.