By Mariel Graeber, ACLU of Florida Legal Intern.Public education “provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all.” That’s according to Plyler v. Doe, a 1981 Supreme Court decision holding that undocumented children cannot be stopped from attending public school based on their immigration status. The idea that allowing as many students as possible to enroll in school would benefit our entire community seems simple. But unfortunately, school administrators haven’t followed through.
Last year, the ACLU of Florida heard reports of some Latino families in Florida being told not to enroll their children in public school because they would have to provide their child’s social security number (“SSN”). Because undocumented children do not have SSNs, requiring them to produce one could deter them from enrolling in school and directly violates Plyler.
The Texas law at issue in Plyler denied funds to public schools that admitted undocumented children and allowed public school districts to deny enrollment to these kids. The Supreme Court concluded there was no rational basis for the state to deny a free public education to undocumented children while providing one to children with legal status.
While Plyler is a decades-old case, policies that threaten undocumented kids’ attendance in public schools are still with us. In 2011, Alabama enacted a law requiring public schools to verify the immigration status of students and their parents. As a result, hundreds of Latino families kept their children out of school. The law has since been struck down as a direct violation of Plyler.
Which brings us back to the Social Security number issue impacting immigrant families in Florida. The ACLU of Florida decided to investigate the practices of school districts across the state. What our investigation turned up was that most enrollment forms failed to inform parents that SSNs are optional.
In May 2012, the ACLU released a report card grading each Florida school district on whether it requests a student’s SSN, whether the form clearly informs families that providing a SSN is optional, and whether the school district discloses that the SSN may not be used for immigration enforcement purposes. The report card signaled how badly unfulfilled the promise of Plyler was in Florida.
In response to the report card, many Florida school districts took steps to improve their scores by changing their enrollment forms to comply with the law.
Last week, the ACLU of Florida released an updated report card . Now 54 of Florida’s 67 school districts received an A as opposed to 34 districts last year. This drastic improvement will allow students from immigrant families to enroll in school without fear.
The idea at the heart of the Plyler decision was that allowing all children to enjoy the right to a free public education helps build a literate and productive workforce, creating a stronger society. And while that is true, and I believe that the report card will help strengthen Florida in the future, I don’t think about it in those grand-scale terms.
Instead, I like to think about in terms of the individual Florida families who will be impacted by the changes their school district made. In twenty more counties, parents will be able to enroll their children in public school without thinking that the lack of a SSN will disqualify them or be reported to immigration enforcement authorities. For these families, a 31 year old promise made by the Supreme Court has finally been fulfilled.