Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only

I’ve been sketching out education policy proposals to contrast with the platitudes we usually see from reporters and wonks asking “questions” about “education platforms.” The policies I’m proposing would, alas, be too popular. So they can’t be mentioned.

Onto the fourth.

Last year, when President Obama’s amnesty decree flooded the school system with thousands of relocated students, the DoE and the DoJ issued a stern warning to force remind states to accept these students.


I have long been fascinated by Plyler vs. Doe, in which the Supreme Court held that states cannot deny school funding for educating illegal immigrants. I re-read it periodically to try and grasp its legal reasoning, as opposed to reacting purely as a citizen wondering what the hell the justices were thinking.

Plyler, in brief (sez a non-lawyer):

a) Illegal aliens are protected by the 14th Amendment.
b) Although aliens are not a suspect class and education is not a fundamental right, it’s an important one, so the state must provide a compelling interest for denying children education.
c) Undocumented status alone is not compelling interest.
d) Preserving limited resources for education of lawful residents is also not sufficiently compelling interest, as no evidence was presented that excluding illegal aliens would improve the state’s ability to provide high-quality education.

The Court emphasized their dismay that children were being punished for their parents’ choices. Moreover, the Texas law was enacted in part to discourage illegal immigration, and the Court pretty much decided that denying illegal minors education was a “ludicrously ineffectual” means of achieving this goal.

My reading of Plyler does not suggest that the justices placed an absolute ban on restricting access to a basic education, but rather that Texas had not made the case for it. The Court later denied a illegal minor access to schools based on parent residency (the child was living with his aunt), and of course not even Americans can go to any school they want to. So schools have maintained their right to restrict access, in some situations. Importantly, the Court continued to hold that education is not a fundamental right. In fact, to win a 5-4 majority in Plyler, Justice William Brennan had to keep Justic Lewis Powell on board and this point was a dealbreaker.

While the states have made efforts before to challenge this restriction, (notably California and Alabama), no one seems to have looked at Plyler as a map of what needs to be done.

Any law seeking to restrict access to American schools can avoid triggering Plyer, in my non-legal reading, by not singling out illegal minors or arguing such restrictions could reduce illegal immigration. To get around the Civil Rights Act, the law can’t discriminate by race, religion, or national origin.

So why not restrict public school to citizens?

Restrict Title I and IDEA funding to citizen students. Or, perhaps, withhold funding from all states that don’t restrict access to K-12 schools. Congress could also bring back the Gallegly Amendment with alterations to restrict immigrant access to public schools. Or a federal law could simply hold that no penalties would be imposed on states that restricted K-12 access to citizens.

Rationale: our citizens deserve our best effort and full resources in order to educate and develop our national potential. The expense and resources required to educate immigrants detract from our ability to educate our own citizenry.

The restriction would not discriminate against anyone based on race, income, or national origin. Any citizen born in Africa, Australia, Europe, South America, or Asia is welcome in our schools. Moreover, this law would not eliminate the compulsory education requirements. Immigrants would still have to educate their children in America. They just can’t use public schools.

It’s not as if legal immigrant children aren’t doing their bit to overburden our schools. According to the 2010 census, 2.6 million K-12 students were not born in this country, or about 1 in 20. Assume all but a few are not citizens. Does it matter if they are here legally when considering costs? They aren’t scattered evenly throughout the country. Asians and Hispanics in particular are heavily concentrated in districts and many of these students are not citizens, legal or not. So while only 5% of all students would be denied access, many districts would see substantial cost reductions in doing so.

Remember, too, that states foot the bill to educate all those refugees imported with federal blessings– Bosnians in San Francisco, Somalians in Portland, the Congolese and Bhutans in North Dakota, and the Syrians all over—and what they don’t cover, the federal government does through Title I. Immigrants can also take advantage of “choice” and create their own charter schools with public funds to self segregate.

Employers of skilled immigrants protest that they don’t impose costs, but that’s nonsense. Techies and professors tend to have kids with high test scores, but they still require teachers, classrooms, and services. Many tech-heavy regions have local schools that are from 40-80% Asian. These regions have much higher teacher salaries (and therefore pensions) because immigrants have driven up housing costs, too.

The usual arguments about immigration benefiting the local economy—whether true or not, once externalities are factored in—are irrelevant here, because school expenses are no longer local or even limited to the states.

Taxpayers foot the bill for all those education extras for immigrants, too. Like bilingual education, thanks to the Supreme Court and Lau v. Nichols, which requires that the states provide education in a student’s native language . About half of all ELL students are foreign born, so we could at least cut those costs in half. (Yes, most ELL students are born here. Worse than that, really. A good chunk of them had parents that were born here. In fact, over 50% of high school ELL students are second or third generation.)

Then all the IDEA special education services described earlier are granted to immigrant students as well. Schools have to assume the full costs of “educating” a child with traumatic brain injury, blindness, or executive function processing issues no matter where he was born.

All those immigrants are then lumped into the melting pot of data that the feds and education reformers of all stripes use to beat schools up for the misfortune of having students with low skills and spotty attendance. School services are expected to support students with multiple issues in multiple languages, yet somehow it’s a shock that schools have more employees who don’t teach.

The advantages of this approach go way beyond just reduced education costs and tremendous popularity for the politicians who support it. Corporations and academic institutions would be forced to limit hires to childless immigrants or compensate for private schools as part of immigrant employment. Citizens would be in a better position to compete for jobs. Similarly, refugee organizations would no longer be able to dump traumatized children on an unsuspecting school district; bringing in refugees would require they fund education costs at private school rates. Chain migration efforts would be stymied; bringing family members over is a much more costly endeavor if education costs aren’t covered.

As for illegal immigrants, they’d be more likely to leave their kids back home, being unable to afford private school.

But although this restriction has tremendous potential to reduce immigration, that must not be the point of the legislation, if we follow the Court’s strictures. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg could show their support for immigration by ending their “philanthropy” for public schools and fund scholarships for illegal immigrant children to attend private schools.

Assuming that tech companies and universities keep hiring skilled immigrants, the private education market would expand tremendously to provide services. The same public schools that pay millions to educate immigrants with public funds would be laying off teachers by the dozens, if not hundreds, once the requirement was lifted, so the private schools could pick up staff cheap.

Yes, immigrants pay taxes. But taxpayers, immigrant or no, don’t always qualify for the services they pay for. Immigrants get considerable benefits from coming to America. They can decide whether or not the benefits are worth the price they pay.

Recently, a Twitter follower tried to gently remonstrate with me when I mourned John Kasich’s loyalty oath to the GOP powers that be, the promise that he’s Jeb in all things immigration.

Immigrants are people too, kiddo.

Because the only reason that anyone could possibly have for wanting to limit immigration is a total absence of contact with the people themselves.

In our national immigration conversation, no one seems to get beyond “immigrants are a threat to America” or “immigrants are hardworking salt of the earth”. Rarely in this debate do you hear the voices of people who routinely work and live with immigrants enough to know that immigrants are both, and neither, and everything in between.

As a teacher, I interact daily and meaningfully with kids of every race from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Legal and illegal. Educated and uneducated. Rich and poor. Brilliant, average, and slow. I’m not serving them dinner, making their lattes, helping them negotiate food stamps, handling their visas, or any other one and done service. Nor am I an expert deeply clued in to one particular immigrant community, be it Hispanic, Hmong, or Haitian.

I form sustained working relationships with all the variety, all the time, all at once: Nigerian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican Republic, ethnic Chinese, actual Chinese, Korean, Indian, Bengalese, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Fijian, Nepalese, Afghan, Iranian, Russian, Syrian…the list goes on. I teach them math, talk about the day’s events, get them to listen to me, yell at them when they don’t. I try to figure out how to engage them, help them learn what they care little about. I talk about movies, music, values, politics. I deal with their parents, codeswitching to comprehend different educational value systems with each conversation.

I very much doubt that anyone in the country has more exposure to the reality of immigration in all its many forms—although many others can tie. Most of those others are teachers. None of those others are in public office, much less running for president.

Only those people are as aware as I am that immigrants are people, too.

My students have my love and dedication regardless of their birthplace. I want the best for all of them.

And that’s why our free education should be reserved for citizens.

Every time Congress, the courts, or the voters institute another educational requirement, they are constraining resources, demanding tradeoffs. At the micro level, as a teacher who wants the best for all my students, every minute I spend with an immigrant is a minute I can’t spend with a citizen.

Move from the micro-level on up.

Every textbook purchased, every IEP negotiated, every special ed kid on a dedicated special ed school bus, every free meal provided, every language published in….every service that goes to an immigrant, resources are taken away from citizen students.

Every teacher hired to reduce class size, teach support classes, offer advanced classes, every school resource officer hired to maintain order in high poverty schools, every truant officer hired to keep tabs on absentee students, every school clerk tasked with ensuring federal compliance ….and every pension paid to same…all that money spent on immigrant students removes possibilities for citizens.

It’s very close to zero sum. Everything we spend to service immigrant students in our educationial system is money we can’t spend on citizen students. Not just educational resources for those endless math and reading standardized tests, but custodial resources for clean bathrooms and trash-free campuses, more computer labs, later library hours, better gyms, more auditoriums, fewer participation fees, longer air conditioning, and a whole host of amenities that have dropped off the list of services our schools used to provide for free.

Is it too much to ask that we devote our resources to our own? I ask this particularly for our American students living in poverty. Bad enough, in my view, they compete for jobs and college access with immigrants that our country welcomes, officially or no, without thought to their impact on the economy and labor pool. But even as schoolchildren, our citizens, no matter how needy, are forced to stand in line for time and resources behind those whose parents came here for a job or a safe place to live and have already received tremendous benefits just by being allowed to live here—legally or not.

A larger debate can, of course, be had about school spending. But in demanding so much from our schools, why are they required to take on such enormous responsibilities and expenditures for other countries’ children?

What does America owe its own children?

Next, and last, of the policy proposals: End the English Language Learner Mandates

About educationrealist

39 responses to “Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only

  • Daniel O'Neil

    1) It’s not a zero sum game. It’s not even close. Most of those kids are going to become adults who work and pay taxes.

    2) Even if that were not true, your argument only makes sense if you intend to find, deport, and prevent re-immigration of these kids. Otherwise all you’re doing is facilitating their failure as adults, regardless of where they end up.

    • educationrealist

      1) Sure. They can work and pay taxes after they’ve been educated on their dime.

      2) That’s the “lawless” argument. But the schools shouldn’t have to answer for failed federal policy. If the feds are worried, the feds can educate the illegal immigrants in special schools just for them.

  • pithom

    All those immigrants are then lumped into the melting pot of data that the feds and education reformers of all stripes use to beat schools up for the misfortune of having students with low skills and spotty attendance.

    -In the school district I reside in, most non-citizens (generally Indian, some Chinese) actually compensate for the generally low outcomes of the native Blacks. So I wholly oppose making government schooling a privilege of citizens.

  • RationalExpressions

    Stop making sense. It’s racist.
    This series is brilliant but depressing. Will there be a time in my life when a politician could make these arguments without being crucified by the media?

  • Retired

    Your proposal is closing the barn door afterwards. If we had an implemented, enforced immigration policy, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Probably won’t happen.
    My concern is that if we don’t try to educate the illegals, we will have an even more hapless, dependent and criminal subset of the population than we have now. Everybody suffers, particularly the uneducated.
    We should charge tuition to non-citizens and come up with a scholarship program for the poor. At least the Asians would have to pay to educate their elite.

  • Jacob

    This reminds me of a puzzle VAM, and the whole “a nation of incompetent teachers are holding our kids back!” thing, are supported mainly by the Hillary/Chetty/Gates Foundation center-left, with the Jeb!/AEI portions of the GOP following along, and both further left and further right politicians and intellectuals opposing the data-driven tide.

    There are many potential explanations for that division, but the most parsimonious is that supporters of VAM are supporters of expanded immigration, seeking an argument that our schools can educate a much larger (and primarily nonnative) student population with no loss of educational quality. Since California is the indisputable counter example to this argument, the legal and ideological battles over VAM and “Do Our Teachers Suck? Yes!” have been particularly concentrated in California.

  • Mark Roulo

    I think there would one more result of this proposal, which is that a number of US citizens residing abroad would return. I’d expect that foreign countries (at least some of them) would respond in turn and living in the foreign country would get more expensive for the Americans with American kids (because those American kids would now need to be educated privately)(*)

    Whether this is a benefit or not probably depends on taste.

    (*) I’m assuming that those American kids already have access to the “free” public education in those other countries. But I haven’t confirmed this.

    • educationrealist

      That’s a good point, but I don’t think Americans do have free education in other countries. It might be employer provided. My school wasn’t free when I lived overseas.

      • kcm

        This varies. My kids were educated at no cost in the public school system while we were abroad, despite being language learners in that country. As academics, we would not have been able to afford private school there, but large multinational companies often pay for private school for their ex-pat employees. One reason for that is to continue education in the language of origin.

        The country we were in considers integration into the country’s community a goal of education, so attempts to instill accepted local values and behavior in the immigrant population through public school.

  • Hattie

    It’s truly disturbing that this even needs to be said.

  • benespen

    Do you think the best way to implement would be to grandfather in anyone in the public system now, and say no new non-citizen entries, or set a date and cut everyone off after that?

  • Beliavsky

    “My students have my love and dedication regardless of their birthplace. I want the best for all of them.”

    You say this in a column advocating that they be thrown out of the public schools. Hypocrite. You have jumped the shark.

  • Dan

    I started writing this comment in favor of your proposal. In fact, in my original draft the phrase “wholeheartedly approve of” appeared twice in regards to your plan. (Admittedly however, the fact that the phrase appeared twice might speak more to my limitations as a writer than to the level of my admiration for your proposal.) In any case, I had originally planned to simply comment that your plan might not be quite as zero sum as you had stated due to the fact – as you have previously stated yourself – that schools are cheaper than jails and that with the rulings against King vs Burwell it seemed to me that textual legality is no longer sufficient in this country for a law to be upheld by the courts.

    In fact I had just finished what I had considered to be an excellent piece of writing of sufficient quality to convince even the most ardent skeptic when I was struck by the thought of what this proposal would do to the concept of equal opportunity. This blog – which I read religiously due to both its content and writing quality – so often rightly rails against the forces who attempt to push policies, such as affirmative action and NCLB, that they believe would provide equal outcomes for different people groups. I think that almost everyone who reads this blog would agree that attempting to achieve equal outcomes for all is both foolish and impossible. I would also hope that Ed and the vast majority of Ed’s readers would agree that equal opportunity is something we should ardently pursue.

    I thus asked myself what implementing Ed’s proposal would do to the concept of equal opportunity if it were implemented and was forced to conclude that restricting public schools to citizens would create a class of people in this country who had very restricted opportunities. Please understand, I am not denying the costs that non-citizen children impose on the education system nor the fact that it is unfair that these costs have to be borne by the citizens of the country. My basic assumption is merely this: severely reducing the opportunities for a significant group of people in this country is a high cost.

    Yes, it can be argued that these non-citizens should never have been allowed into the country in the first place and yes, Ed’s policy would likely result in some percentage of the non-citizen population in this country leaving. However neither of these arguments changes that fact that no matter whether or not it was wise to allow so many non-citizens to immigrate here in the first place, the number of non-citizen students is so large now (Ed says 5% of all students) that removing all non-citizen access to public schools would create a huge number of people with severely limited opportunities even if the policy causes some to leave the country.

    Now, even if one accepts my argument that restricting public K-12 schools to citizens will create a large underclass of people in this country with significantly lower opportunity and my assumption that this in and of itself is a high moral cost, one must of course also examine the benefits of such a policy before any reasonable conclusion about the merit of said policy can be reached. Assuming I understand the post correctly, Ed suggests that the benefits of such a policy is that the large portion of resources that schools currently use to educate non-citizens could be repurposed to educate citizens. While I don’t argue that significant resources are spent on educating non-citizens, I am not simply not convinced that simply re-allocating these resources to the education of citizens would produce any significant benefit. One of the most frequently revisited topics of this blog is that scholastic achievement is in general limited by cognitive ability and not by the available resources. From this assumption it follows that simply providing more resources to schools by limiting their responsibilities to only educating citizens will not necessarily result and any – much less significant – gains in student scholastic achievement.

    This idea is what in the end seals it for me. Ed has previously stated, and I would agree, that despite the large burden placed on K-12 schools by the requirement that they educate both citizens and non-citizens the public school system is pretty good. Immigrants certainly seem to think so. So my argument really boils down to this:

    Equal opportunity (rather than equal outcome) for all people living inside the US is something to be aimed for.

    Denying a large group of people an equal opportunity to succeed is a very high moral cost. Not an insurmountable cost, but a high cost indeed.

    As public schools seem to be surviving despite their mandate to educate non-citizens and given the fact that scholastic achievement is largely influenced by cognitive ability, repurposing the resources currently used to educate non-citizens would likely not provide significant benefits to citizen students.

    Thus, as I see it, the costs simply outweigh the benefits of this particular proposal.

    • jay

      The students who are not citizens under the current interpretation of the 14th amendment migrated after birth. As such, they cannot hold down a job legally in this county, even if we were to send them to Harvard on private scholarships.

      • Dan

        Ah. I had not considered that, thanks.
        However as Ed pointed out,

        “Remember, too, that states foot the bill to educate all those refugees imported with federal blessings– Bosnians in San Francisco, Somalians in Portland, the Congolese and Bhutans in North Dakota, and the Syrians all over—”

        there are certainly some k-12 age children who are in the country legally and could eventually hold jobs. Now, what is the ratio of legal vs. illegal non-citizen children currently living in the US? As to that I have no idea.

    • Retired

      “As public schools seem to be surviving despite their mandate to educate non-citizens…”

      You must not have kids in public schools. One of the reasons upper-middle class kids succeed is due to their parents fighting for 13 years to make the schools teach their kids something. Like school starts next week and we don’t have math teacher. The old one gave notice in May.

      • Jacob

        Which state are you in? How large a city? I find these stories vary a lot in frequency by locale.

      • Retired

        Blue state, first in an upper middle class area with 15% hispanic, now in an almost all white charter school in the same blue state, rural area.
        I don’t want my kid to survive school, I want him to be educated. It’s happening with a lot of expensive private tutoring in lieu of regular classes so we can avoid the bad teachers and admin. incompetence. + a bunch of junior college classes.

      • educationrealist

        Just because the old one gave notice doesn’t mean it’s easy to hire. We had a teacher give notice in March, started interviewing in May, and offered a teacher a job. The teacher accepted, then backed out, then it took us months to find another. We ended up with an intern.

      • Dan

        I didn’t state that public schools are excelling or operating at peak efficiency, merely that they were surviving. Actually, come to think of it, I think surviving is a pretty good description of many public schools. I don’t read many news stories about school riots or stabbings and the literacy rate in the US is pretty high. And given all of the constraints put on public schools today in the effort to equalize outcomes, I would say surviving isn’t half bad.

        If educational outcomes are mainly dependent on cognitive abilities, then teacher quality (over a certain, very low, baseline) won’t matter all that much to student outcomes. This concept should also scale up to the school level. If a school is operating at an effectiveness level that allows it to survive here in the US, I would submit that doubling or even tripling the effectiveness level probably wouldn’t increase student academic outcomes that much.

        As for the difficulty replacing teachers, well, that’s why universities use grad students.
        Actually, its mostly due the fact that most professors hate teaching, but many classes end up getting taught by grad students because the professor who was supposed to teach the class backs out.

  • Lagertha

    I don’t see any solution to this conundrum. In my own community, we have a high performing HS with different tracks (traditional vocational tracks as well) including the rigorous AP one in which only 10-20% of students participate in. We rarely get ELL’s but they are often from Asia…and, seem to pick up the language fairly quickly. Our town is perceived as an affluent community, and most of the students representing some minority (other than children of educated immigrants,) pay a premium for some modest house (or high rent in an apt complex) to have access to this school. We have Project Choice kids coming from a small city, but once again, most of these students/their parents are pushing for their child to go to this particular school, and most of them are very happy at our HS. The school has been nationally recognized for doing a good job, but it is has just a 6% minority population…so not a good example of success for closing any kind of achievement gap, and we have few ELL’s since the rents are high and homes are very expensive with high taxes…and, you absolutely need a car to live here.

    However, over the years, the school system has abandoned accelerated programs in primary school and middle school, much to the chagrin of many parents (had more to do with the steady influx of SN students). During these formative years, the ability to move faster is crucial ( I thought this is obvious to everyone) since the AP classes await the top 10% with that cognitive ability which is so often put down (or ignored nationally) by de-trackers. But, if one were to look at the background of these students, many of these students are solidly middle class and children of blue-color or rural laboring parents…and lower income, not the “white privilege” kids the MSM continues to denigrate. There is maybe just 5% of students here whose parents can pay future college tuition without having to take out loans.

    The irony of ironies lately: affluent children of immigrants who my sons were in primary school with, are opting to spend $160K for 4 years at the numerous, exclusive private/boarding schools in our region instead of continuing into our local HS. There is also a steady rise of same students to attend a local Montessori school (and skip public school altogether) or Christian academies for the primary years – and, our property taxes are the highest in the region! So, I am starting to see that affluent families, outside of the typical white families, are blowing off public school since they demand higher tracks (tracking in primary school) for their “genius” children. So many of these parents are obsessed with the elite U’s, and are convinced that by paying this tuition, their child will secure that seat at Harvard. They don’t feel that our local public school system can any longer guarantee that their child has gotten a robust education to gain acceptance to the top 20 U’s. And, some affluent immigrant parents have actually said to me that they don’t want their children held back “by the dumb kids,” in primary and middle school – and, we are a majority white town, once again. Only if they have a special needs child will they opt for their child to go to our public schools.

    One way or another, I envision most middle-class to upper middle ( along with affluent immigrants or not,) class students leaving public school behind (maybe not in our community yet,) and thus, creating a new division diametrically opposed to equal outcomes, or the economic inequality every pundit obsesses about – the Bright Flight, so to speak, is in motion. Private schools (and Catholic HS’s) in our region are thriving when just 15 years ago I thought they would be shuttered.

    P.S. I was a non-English speaker in 2nd grade, and I learned English in 5 months with intense in-school tutoring (a volunteer) and watching copious amounts of TV! My brothers and I all benefited from tracking in public schools in NYC & NJ and went on to achieve numerous degrees at the elite U’s in this country.

  • Lagertha

    Also, I feel that in some dystopian future, there will be public schools for non-English speakers, ELL’s, migrants…and poor people; and, there will be Charter Schools for the bright kids and just ok kids. Private schools, of course, will become the new elite schools for parents of 14-year-olds who will be competing for admission with all the other bright and affluent kids who will pay enormous tuition…kinda’ a starter experience for the college admissions arms-race they will face several years later. Inequality will just broaden and no signs of narrowing the achievement gap will be in sight. Oh, and the teachers will be robots designed and built in SV with software and coding systems which will be updated often and custom designed to meet each student’s ability level!

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