In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that public school districts were required to educate all children, regardless of their legal status.

Today not all districts are abiding by the ruling.

Investigations by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have repeatedly identified districts asking parents for specific documentation that would intentionally give away a family’s legal status—a clear violation of the law.

Earlier this month, 96 out of 134 districts in Alabama were identified and warned of the violation. This breach in legal protection is not merely a regional issue either—districts in New Jersey and New York have been accused of the same violation.

A Brief History of Plyler v. Doe

In 1975, the Texas legislature passed a law that denied funding to public schools educating undocumented students.

Under this stipulation, public school districts could bar undocumented students from attending their institution. If parents wanted to enroll their children, they would have to pay tuition, since the state would not provide funding toward the education of any undocumented child.

Although the state of Texas argued the quality of education would be diluted and it would be too expensive to educate undocumented children, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruled against the state.

The Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment states, “Nor shall any state…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Court stated that, even though students are undocumented, they still have the right to be protected under the law.

Yet, more than thirty years later, K–12 school districts are still searching for ways to keep undocumented children outside the schoolhouse.

Requirements to Enroll in Public Schools

In an attempt to circumvent the law, some schools have been asking parents to provide documentation of a child’s legal status for enrollment purposes. On enrollment forms, schools have been asking for a:

  • birth certificate
  • social security number
  • state issued form of identification
  • indication of legal status via a list of checkboxes

Some districts have taken their blatant discrimination one step further, by asking for a child’s social security number only on the Spanish language form.

The ruling in Plyler does not necessarily restrict a school’s ability to ask for a social security number. However, it states that schools must specify compliance is completely voluntary, and also what they intend to do with the information requested.

Yet, few school districts provide this information to families, making their actions unconstitutional. Due to districts’ illegal enrollment policies, the Department of Justice and Department of Education have jointly released a Dear Colleague letter, fact sheet, and frequently asked questions in an attempt to correct these practices.

Why It’s Necessary to Abide by Plyler

The Department of Justice estimates there are approximately 1.1 million undocumented children under the age of eighteen living in the United States. If we want all 1.1 million of these undocumented children to be fully functioning members of society, we cannot exclude them from public education.

Education level is highly correlated with income. The lower your level of education, the higher your unemployment rate is likely to be, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past twenty years, this trend has stayed true. Those with less than a high school diploma are more likely to earn less overall.

Higher income means a higher tax bracket. Living on the public dime, short-sighted school districts should recognize that it’s actually in their best long-term interest to make education accessible to all demographics.

It is also in the nation’s interest to educate undocumented children.

As states pass restrictive laws that make it more difficult for undocumented students to become educated—thereby making it more challenging to enter the labor force—these districts are doing our economy a significant disservice.

As the Supreme Court so eloquently put it:

“By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”