Abbott wants to deny undocumented kids a public education

A new bill would prohibit children not authorized to be in the country from attending public school.

click to enlarge Gov. Greg Abbott puts on a scowl and a faux-military shirt for a photo op along the U.S.-Mexico border. - Instagram / governorabbott
Instagram / governorabbott
Gov. Greg Abbott puts on a scowl and a faux-military shirt for a photo op along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This article was originally published by the Texas Observer, a nonprofit investigative news outlet. Sign up for their weekly newsletter, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Texas’ GOP leaders have a sadistic penchant for booting out immigrant families on holidays. Last Christmas, Gov. Greg Abbott bussed and dumped migrant families in the freezing cold in Washington, D.C. This past Valentine’s Day, Texas Senator Drew Springer filed SB 923, delivering on Abbott’s reelection campaign goal to deny undocumented children access to public education — unless the federal government pays. The bill is now in the Senate Education Committee.

From bussing migrants and executing Operation Lone Star to building Texas’ own border wall and, now, to his efforts forcing out undocumented children from public schools, Abbott has been attempting to one-up President Joe Biden and the Democrats to show he can do a better job enforcing federal immigration laws than the federal government. He has framed his political stunts as a genuine effort to deal with the “unsustainable and unaffordable” burden of illegal immigration on the American people. Democrats and the mainstream liberal media have reacted by offering a cost-benefit analysis of immigration. But in doing so, they have fallen into Abbott’s political ploy that makes the problem about the costs of immigration instead of about the state’s plan to abandon its responsibility to provide basic services like public education to all Texans. 

Democrats and mainstream liberal media outlets like The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News have fallen for Abbott’s divisive tactics that pits us against one another by narrowing the problem to just an immigrant issue. On one hand, Abbott argues that undocumented children and their families are a burden on our society. On the other, the Dallas Morning News lauded the economic benefits that migrant children would provide to Texas in the future. That is just code for saying migrant children are good for the economy because they would provide a steady source of cheap, exploitable labor in the future. Such an argument traps us in a rhetorical feedback loop and fuels the right-wing shibboleth of blaming immigrants for stealing our jobs and resources. Such misguided thinking steers us to fight each other for inadequate resources and services while the plutocrats of our society, aided by the state, rob from us each day. 

SB 923 would prohibit undocumented children from receiving state public education funds, withholding these funds from public schools. Districts would then have to call on the federal government to pay. The bill would deputize school districts to enforce immigration laws and empower them to decide what constitutes proof of nationality. School districts would then report children who do not meet such requirements to the state education agency. It’s a recipe for a host of discriminatory actions that would impact any minority child — not just undocumented children. 

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Arizona v. U.S. prohibits states, much less school districts, from superseding the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration laws. Abbott has repeatedly challenged this precedent. 

The bill would also violate a 1982 Supreme Court decision that ensures free public education to all children, including undocumented children. With Plyer v. Doe, the Supreme Court found that Texas violated the 14th Amendment when it denied undocumented children the equal protection of laws prohibiting discrimination. The court struck down a 1975 Texas Education Code that allowed its school districts to charge undocumented children tuition. 

While the overturning of Roe v. Wade may signal to conservatives a willingness to reverse other precedents, Michael Wishnie — a Yale Law School professor who specializes in immigration, labor, and civil rights — believes there would not be enough judicial support for this bill. 

“The Supreme Court settled this issue in Plyler v. Doe. The Constitution forbids state-sponsored animus and bigotry of this sort. While no decision is invulnerable to revision by the current Supreme Court, there is also no indication that the justices have any appetite to deny basic public education to millions of children, nor to impose on all of us the lifetime consequences that would result,” Wishnie said. 

In Plyer v. Doe, Justice William J. Brennan wrote, “Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. … Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

But Texas has increasingly shirked its responsibility to provide equal public education to all children in Texas — not just immigrant children. For over 10 years, Texas has been reducing its share of contributions to public education, forcing local property taxpayers to shoulder most of the burden. It ranks at the bottom 10 in the nation in per-pupil funding. Abbott would rather use our $33 billion budget surplus for property tax cuts, which would primarily benefit rich property owners, instead of investing that money in schools. His push for vouchers would strip state funding from public schools and dismantle them for the benefit of wealthy privateers. 

Abbott’s attempt to deny undocumented children access to public education has nothing to do with concerns over public schools’ limited resources. For years, Texas Republicans have been plotting to defund and privatize our schools. What Abbott’s gambit would do, on the other hand, is have citizens in Texas point their fingers at immigrants — instead of the state — for failing to provide quality public education. 

In Plyer v. Doe, Justice Brennan foresaw the dangers that denying public education to all children would create in reinforcing a “permanent caste” system and undermining democracy. Today, efforts to defund and privatize our public schools through charters and vouchers threaten the right to equal public education for all children. Making sure that our schools are a public good for all children to equally access is a fight for all families — not just immigrant families.

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