Illegal Immigration’s Impact on Oklahoma Schools

No need to pretend, this is going to be an uncomfortable conversation that’s not very politically correct. Immigration affects different parts of the country very differently. Oklahoma’s vicinity to the Southern border and it’s very low cost of living, among many other factors, makes it attractive for many Mexican immigrants, and ideal for many who are living in the United States illegally.

I really didn’t understand this until one day in class.

In my classes, I asked tough questions. One day, a conversation came up about illegal immigration. I looked to some of my Mexican students, who are not a minority where we live, and asked them point blank if they thought illegal immigration was as common as people say. I expected responses to either downplay it or silence if it was. To my surprise, they very openly acknowledged how common illegal immigration was. Some outlined the processes by which coyotes bring new immigrants over, the specialists who forge documents, relationships with drug cartels, and much more that left my jaw hanging. Finally, I asked, “So in your opinion, how many of the Hispanic kids in town do you think live here illegally?” Just as frank as before, they looked at each other, thought about it and one finally said, “About a quarter,” to which the rest confirmed. While not a scientific study by any degree, the students’ anecdotal admonition is supported by data.

Racial Dot Map

Above is a racial dot map of my town. Here, the Mexican population went from around 5% in 1970 to around 50% according to the 2010 census. That’s a massive shift and I am not even talking about the cultural consequences. Add this to the ad-hoc survey of Mexican students acknowledged around 25% of their Mexican counterparts immigrated to Oklahoma illegally. A few have even very openly admitted to me personally their own illegal status.Further evidence comes from the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s website, which shows about a 1% increase in total enrollment annually since around 2009, which suddenly plummetted to around .15% following the election of President Trump and the reduction of illegal immigration which followed.

 When evidence suggests that 12.5% of your student population are children of illegal immigrants, as well as the impact that has to your native students, some conversations need to start happening, and they are going to be difficult, beginning with one of the primary methods schools get state funding.

Daily head counts are a major factor used to determine the needs of a district when requests for funding are made each year to the state. This isn’t measured by enrollments, but how many children are actually present in class on a daily basis. More heads mean more funding. As per state requirements, to be present you must be enrolled requiring proof of legal residence. This includes birth certificate, SSN, shot records, and proof of a valid home address within the district. This asks how it is possible for so many students to claim illegal status while the system seems to have mechanisms to prevent it. What seems apparent from the administrators I’ve spoken to is a system with holes. One such hole seems to center on the implausibly large number of Hispanic children who have recently immigrated, not from the Mexico, or even Texas, but via New Hampshire, among other oddities. Clearly, professional fraudulent behaviors are taking place that allows many children to pass enrollment.

The question is, what are the schools to do about it? Should the schools deny new students on suspicion? That could get a school on the news really fast, as it’s actually a violation of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Plyler v. Doe held that illegal immigrants do have the rights to state public education.

Held: A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Furthermore, it states that school administrators aren’t obligated to enforce immigration law.

But does it mean that better integration with federal immigration agencies during the enrollment process is out of the question? No. In the way that an application to buy a gun involves a background check, what’s preventing applications for all new students from being automatically screened by state and federal authorities for irregularities? Such a system would aid investigators if they feel that investigation is warranted, such in cases where it is believed the parents are involved in far more illegal activity than simply living within the United States, so long as the student is allowed to enroll regardless.

The big problem, however, is that schools currently aren’t incentivized to lower the number of students. This isn’t because of some altruistic benevolence, but because of daily head counts. Reducing the number of children, no matter the reason, reduces the total funds allocated to the school by the state. In a cash-strapped Oklahoma, schools do not turn away students for purely financial reasons. It is always a poorly designed system that incentivizes one government to work against the goals of many others on account of funding to do so.

Second is that Oklahoma attracts many low-income immigrants because they find cheaper homes, a lower cost of living, availability of low skill labor, and a geography difficult for federal agencies to investigate illegal immigration activity. Combine this with the state’s other funding difficulties such as law enforcement, and you can see that any policing agencies are much more concerned with Oklahoma’s growing organized drug crime problems than on school enrollment. Little can be done about what makes Oklahoma fairly unique and attractive to many who are living in the state illegally, but we have to ask if we need to reconsider how we fund our schools and if daily head counts should be a primary driver of revenue.

The head-count system assumes certain things about the “normal/average child”. This assumes historical average variables such as family size, family income, local taxation, and predictable levels of special services to name a few. However, when a large enough proportion of students in a particular school, or even whole regions of the state, does not reflect such state norms then the systems built to fund only on raw numbers fall apart. A few examples:

Consider funding provided by locals districts. New sources of cheap labor drive business development and increase local spending, both of which mean an increase in taxes, but is the new business created enough to offset the costs to educate their children? Usually not, as the costs per student were designed to also include income taxes. When much of your income is illegally sourced and off the books, it’s rarely taxed. This is true both for the business and the employer side.

Next, the “normal costs” don’t normally factor in additional services immigrant children require to compete. This isn’t talking about the cultural ramifications or race, but economic realities and acknowledging the hardships of teaching to such extremes in demographics. Consider that almost every teacher I know has had to teach a new student who has never spoken a word of the English language. Do you remember the challenges around testing? Multiply that by an order of magnitude when you have multiple students who are ESL (English as a second language.) State funds are required for ESL (English as a Second Language) and ELL (English Language Learner) programs, and sometimes the districts must add even more. But a certified teacher must fill this role, which is almost impossible in many of the rural parts of the state. For perspective, after interviewing one local administrator, of the 556 students enrolled in her building, 149 rate ESL services. That’s roughly 30% of the students rating some form of ESL or ELL programs. These programs channel huge amounts of money to these children relative to what their native-born students, both American and Mexican-American get to achieve the same education. For comparison, one school district in Louisiana found that the additional costs incurred for educating came to approximately $4.6 to educate 533 illegal immigrant students and a 2011 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform found illegal immigration’s fiscal burden on Oklahoma education to be around $245 million. Given all of this, and the extremes in demographic and economic inequalities leave systems built around statewide normalized metrics such as daily head counts unsuitable to determine the state funding a school should receive.

If we are having conversations about things that can be done, understanding the burden that illegal immigration has on Oklahoma education needs to be part of that conversation. Any system which incentivizes packing students into seats at all costs needs to be questioned, and this is especially true if the policy incentivizes schools to make decisions that don’t put the needs of American citizens first. We need policies that encourage schools to work with other government agencies to do what is best for Oklahoma students and future.

Photography for the Mystic Valley Charter Schools.

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