‘Subclass of illiterates’

by Brian Clarey


North Carolina has been embroiled in a debate over the education of undocumented young people for the past couple years, first with regards to community college and now, possibly, public schools.

The words of Justice William Brennan almost 30 years ago in the US Supreme Court’s landmark Plyler v. Doe decision might offer some guidance to our state, which is blessed with a diverse and growing population, and seeking a prosperous future.

“This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents,” Brennan wrote. “The existence of such as underclass presents most difficult problems for a nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.”

The Supreme Court ruling ensuring the right of every child to a free public education, regardless of citizenship, eventuated from an act of the Texas legislature in 1975 to withhold state funds from any local school district that provided for the education of children not “legally admitted” into the United States, driven by a state interest in “fiscal integrity.”

Now, Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth) is sponsoring a bill to require parents to state whether their child is a citizen before enrolling them or transferring them into a local school. The bill implicitly acknowledges Plyler v. Doe by specifying, “This information shall be used only for fiscal analysis and shall not be used to deny admission to a child who is a domiciliary of the local school administrative unit.”

Considering that no child may be denied a public education, it appears that the only outcomes such a law would accomplish would be to stoke resentment against illegal immigrants by quantifying a cost for the education of their children or to discourage parents from sending undocumented children to school. What sane parent wouldn’t worry that information about their child’s status would be shared with the authorities leading to deportation?

The reasoning of Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican who is a cosponsor of the bill, is not exactly reassuring.

“I think one could argue that daily existence in an environment where someone could be considered to be illegal has to be a stressful time, whether they are working, or traveling or trying to put their children through school,” he told YES! Weekly. “Certainly it’s a stressful situation, and they have to choose whether they’re going to let their children participate.”

This raises the question of whether the intent of the bill is to stage a legal showdown in hopes of overturning the Supremes’ 1982 ruling. Faircloth said that’s not his reason for putting his name on the bill.

This is a foolish path for the state to travel. It’s hard to beat Justice Brennan for eloquence:

“It is difficult to understand precisely what the state hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the state and the nation.”

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