Miami-Dade Immigrant Student Squeeze

Eagle Forum | May 2013

As the nation debates immigration policy, some Floridians are realizing the impact immigration has on their schools and how it influences children’s potential to learn. A study initiated by the Miami-Dade school district, the fourth-largest in the nation, found that local taxpayers provide a minimum of $22 million a year to educate immigrant students that is not reimbursed by the federal or state government. This expense is a result of approximately 1,000 new immigrant students a month arriving in Miami-Dade schools. 

Federal law forces localities to educate all students, regardless of their immigrant status. In fact, schools may not even legally inquire as to citizenship status of families and students. The districts know the student status only by extrapolation from the student’s place of birth and that the student speaks no English. 

The costs incurred by local school districts include: English-language-learner courses using certified ESOL-endorsed (English to Speakers of Other Language) teachers; physical accommodation such as space in class, desk, and books; and “transitional newcomer programs” to facilitate cultural adjustment, which the district must provide if there is evidence that the student has been “uprooted abruptly.” Due to the nature of immigrant arrival, the expenses incurred are often beyond what schools have budgeted. 

The Miami-Dade school district “Immigrant Impact Briefing” report maintains that the federal government should fully fund illegal immigrants’ education because it is the failure to enforce immigration laws and national borders that allows undocumented immigrants to stress school budgets. 

The report indicates that “in February there were more than 68,000 foreign-born students enrolled in classes . . . which is about one out of every five students, mostly from Cuba, though students come from countries as far flung as Poland and Nigeria.” 

Beyond fiscal concerns, an overabundance of students who don’t speak English affects other students’ ability to learn. The overall ranking of schools, in the district, the state, and the nation changes when immigrant students are counted in testing results; they don’t know English and therefore cannot do well on standardized tests. Immigrant students influence accountability data that report school graduation and dropout rates. Students are treated as proficient in English after just one year as English language learners. 

Although $22 million is only 1% of the Miami Dade Public Schools $2.7 billion annual general fund, a school district representative said, “There’s a lot we can do with $22 million.” (Miami Herald, 03-09-13)