In growing cities, a loss of students
Schools aren't sure why enrollment is down. Some experts cite rising fears among illegal immigrants.
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Public school officials in several districts in Arizona, California, and Texas – particularly those with a high share of Hispanic students – are seeing a drop in enrollment this school year over last, and many are at a loss to explain it.
The drop is noticeable but not huge – in the range of 1 to 4 percent – and some administrators shrug it off as normal fluctuation or say the missing students, whose families tend to be transient, may yet enroll later in the year. Other analysts posit that the abrupt end to the housing boom has seen construction jobs dry up in these areas and people have simply moved elsewhere for work, kids in tow.
But Miriam, a single mother from Mexico who lives in the Phoenix metro area, offers a different explanation. Five families who lived in the same apartment complex as she does have recently packed up and returned to Mexico, and between them they had 10 children who used to attend a local elementary school, she says. They were "panicked" about a new Arizona law that cracks down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, says Miriam, who would speak only on a first-name basis even though she says she is in the US on a "visitor's visa."
There's some anecdotal evidence that what Miriam has seen is occurring elsewhere in Arizona and in out-of-state communities with laws unfriendly to illegal immigrants. The declining school enrollments could be the strongest proof yet that the frostier climate is driving at least some undocumented workers out of the US – or deeper underground.
While many factors are probably contributing to the enrollment dip, most experts agree it is due at least in part to the federal government's high-profile raids at job sites to snag undocumented workers, as well as to some 1,200 initiatives introduced at the local level to target illegal immigrants.
Legal status not a prerequisite
Children are not required to show that they have legal residency to enroll in public schools, due to a landmark 1982 US Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe. But parents or guardians increasingly worried about detection or deportation may be disinclined to send their kids to school, analysts say.
"The downturn in the economy, especially the housing industry, as well as ... workplace raids and tightening up on Social Security numbers, are having their desired effect," says Michael Olivas, an expert on immigration law and policy at the University of Houston. "They not only get the people they target, but others [legally in the US who leave because they feel unwelcome]. They put the fear of God in some of these folks."
Whatever the broader economic impact of the battle against illegal immigration, schools can immediately measure the budget consequences of lower enrollment.
The state of Arizona, for example, funds schools at the rate of $4,000 to $6,000 per student per year, depending on certain criteria. For Mesa, which saw public school enrollment citywide drop by some 1,400 students this year to 72,525, that could mean at least $5.6 million less funding.
Likewise, several of two dozen school districts in Phoenix – particularly those serving Hispanic neighborhoods – are reporting lower enrollments. Four weeks into the school year, Isaac Elementary School District in west-central Phoenix, where most of the student body is Hispanic, had 4.3 percent fewer students than at the same time last year, dropping from 8,561 to 8,190.
Gabriel Garcia, principal of an elementary school in the Isaac district, says he sees the enrollment fluctuation as normal because people living in the district tend to be on the move. "We're in a high rental area," he says. "We have two apartment complexes that have 300 to 400 apartments each, so the mobility is pretty high."
Administrators at other schools in Phoenix cite high mobility, too, saying many people travel to Mexico at the end of summer and don't return to enroll their children until after Labor Day.
But enrollment at Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix, where 8 in 10 students are Hispanic, remains down 1.4 percent after the week that included Labor Day, according to figures from Ken Garland, interim director for support services at Roosevelt.