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Immigrants have long looked to public education as the pathway to prosperity, through schools that offer their kids a springboard to the American Dream. Yet many learn the hard way that the Dream can easily crumble into myth, as hopes of academic achievement are stifled by inequality, in school and at home.

Courtesy Southern Education Foundation

Percentage of low-income students in the South and in the nation. Courtesy Southern Education Foundation

Immigrants have long looked to public education as the pathway to prosperity, through schools that offer their kids a springboard to the American Dream. Yet many learn the hard way that the Dream can easily crumble into myth, as hopes of academic achievement are stifled by inequality, in school and at home.

The math on schools and inequality betrays that myth. About half of public school students nationwide are now low-income—a rate that has risen steadily since 2000, according to a new study of 2011 data by the education philanthropy Southern Education Foundation. The unprecedented figure represents the number of students, from preschool to grade 12, who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 2010 and 2011. (This threshold is a proxy for economic hardship—equivalent to an annual income below 130 percent of the poverty line, or less than $30,000 for a family of four.)

Cutting the census data by region and income level, the study maps the contours of inequality in the rising generation: nationwide, public schools are becoming a place for poor children, which poses a growing challenge for institutions charged with ensuring equal educational opportunities in a young population stratified by class and race. This leaves policymakers with the basic question of how schools can help meet these students’ needs, and how state, local, and federal governments can alleviate the poverty that makes it hard for low-income schools to fulfill their mission.

The report stimulated public debate on why public education isn’t serving disadvantaged children—particularly children of color—equitably. But there was little commentary on a critical factor in the changing social ecosystem of the nation’s schools. The growing presence of immigrant communities in the school system is reshaping whom public education serves and how, and making it necessary for lawmakers to understand the challenges they face when writing immigration and education policy.

While data on the immigrant child population are often unclear (schools do not explicitly collect data on the immigration status of children as a policy matter), there’s no doubt that the increasing impoverishment of schools coincides with the browning of the nation’s youth. The report shows more than two thirds of Latino children attending these predominantly low-income schools (more than double the rate of their white peers).

According to census data, Latino immigrants’ presence in the South has risen especially dramatically. About 35 percent comes from Mexico, followed by India, China, and the Philippines. Southern states have the highest concentration of low-income public school children (some 53 percent). Local schools have accordingly seen an influx of Spanish-speaking students. This new wave of migrants are generally more likely to be poor, lack health insurance, and have arrived later in the U.S.

For working-class first-generation immigrant youth, institutionalized racism, economic instability, and legal barriers are a symptom and a cause of educational inequality. Nationwide, one quarter of children have at least one immigrant parent, and a large portion live in poverty.

Inequality colors the lives of the children of these immigrant families. Their communities, including their schools, are where layers of social and economic inequality converge. It’s not that immigration itself drives poverty per se: it typically generates overall economic growth. And there are immigrant households of every income level. But the fact is that many immigrant families remain relatively poor. As a result of de facto race and class discrimination in job and housing opportunities, many live in segregated towns and neighborhoods. The local schools where they send their kids reflect these social borders.

The Dreamers—the moniker for high-achieving undocumented students—are rightly praised for overcoming such hardships to succeed in school. But for every Latino valedictorian success story in the news, there are countless invisible kids of immigrant backgrounds for whom threadbare public school systems reinforce structural barriers—of language, culture, race, class—that keep them from realizing their intellectual and creative potential. These kids pay the price on two social deficits: dysfunctional immigration policies and a degraded educational infrastructure.

All low-income communities face educational barriers. But for poor immigrant children, the center of their struggle lies beyond the classroom walls—it starts in the state house that slashes programs for English language learners, or with the detention center where mothers and fathers languish indefinitely.

For all the drastic fixes that policymakers have proposed to close the “achievement gap”—more tests, closing bad schools, firing bad teachers—there’s a simple arithmetic that most freshmen-level economics students understand better than anyone. Put less in, get less out. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis, test scores in large part reflect the distribution of wealth: “In every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution.”

For the migrants living in marginalized, high-poverty areas, in the coming years, children of these communities are likely to be concentrated in the toughest, poorest classrooms, particularly Latino kids and English language learners. University of Michigan researchers found that Latino children in poor, segregated immigrant neighborhoods tend to stay impoverished later in life—quite contrary to the bootstraps narrative of intergenerational social mobility.

The corrosive inequality in poor schools parallels deficits across every aspect of a low-income child’s life: waiting lists for subsidized daycare, or neighborhoods where it’s not safe to play outside. Children in immigrant communities and communities of color are surrounded by these scenes, from ramshackle farmworker enclaves in San Joaquin Valley to blighted corners of Miami. A childhood spent in such environments, public-health research shows, may have a profound impact on early mental development—not exactly putting those Dreamers-in-waiting on the honors track.

Low-income children from immigrant families face plenty of challenges within the classroom, too. In the most disadvantaged districts, where many immigrant neighborhoods are clustered, rich arts programming, diverse curricula and creative pedagogy are substituted with formulaic math and reading classes based on rigid, one-size-fits-all standards—a product of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind act. Struggling students are then battered by high-stakes standardized tests, which have long been criticized for marginalizing poor students and English language-learners, who tend to need a more nuanced, guided approach to learning beyond endless testing.

The consequences of flunking a test can be especially devastating for Latino kids in border communities like El Paso, where Debbie Nathan reported for In These Times about an apparent trend of students being “pushed out” after scoring too low.

One former El Paso high school student, Sonia, ended up leaving school after failing the state’s high-stakes standardized test, essentially pushed out because, despite her pleas, the administration refused to let her re-enroll. Years later, at age 20, still without a degree, she said, “Sometimes I dream about being in school with my friends—in class, working, writing. Then I wake up, knowing it was just a dream. That I can’t go back.”

José Eduardo Chávez, a California-based undocumented youth activist of Oaxacan ancestry, reflected in a recent report on educational challenges facing California immigrant youth, “Voices of Indigenous Oaxacan Youth in the Central Valley,” published by the University of California Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California.

“We have to keep in mind again that as many as half of the Oaxacan students are undocumented and have possibly suffered even more than that, whether because of crossing the desert or from discrimination,” he wrote. “It is difficult to concentrate in an environment where parents who work in the field are leaving before dawn and coming home at dusk.” Yet he added that he and his peers saw their parents as an inspiration, after enduring so much hardship—struggles that both animated and constrained their ambitions.

Although most children of immigrant families are citizens, many have undocumented relatives, and they carry the stress of their secret to class every day. Unlike many of their classmates with citizen parents, children of the undocumented go to school each morning never knowing whether their parents will wind up in deportation proceedings that afternoon.

In many cases, when parents are detained or deported by immigration authorities, the child welfare system then sweeps up their children, too. According to a 2011 investigation, more than 5,000 children had been placed in foster care as a result of their parents’ detention or deportation—and end up languishing in a child welfare system that places children at even greater risk of emotional trauma and disrupted schooling.

Their whole futures, including their education, are jeopardized by immigration policy that doesn’t recognize the needs of their families. The impact of family separation on these children’s school experiences is a barometer of the injustices that their communities face every day. To the extent that education has the power to level inequality, an immigration policy built on enforcing legal inequality runs counter to the basic public interest of caring for the nation’s kids.

But the traumas of migrant youth sometimes engender unique resilience. Researchers in El Paso, for instance, recently studied the hardships facing migrant children in border-town schools, and found not just not just vulnerabilities, but extraordinary strengths—like the ability to navigate many cultural spheres, and the emotional strength to steel themselves against the daily terror of drug war violence. But according to the researchers, their schools had failed to provide the social supports they needed; the students lacked receptive relationships with educators and safe spaces for dialogue where they could share their stories, work through their family stresses, and express struggles with the past violent experiences.

One intervention that has reshaped many immigrant students’ lives is the ethnic studies movement, embodied in the pioneering Mexican American Studies [MAS] program in Tucson. MAS grew out of an anti-colonial, pro-migrant, pro-Chicano political activist movement that surged in the 1990s, led by the Tucson Xicano Mexicano Committee for Self-Determination. The contemporary program draws from activist traditions of street theater and direct action as means of popular education, featuring critical works like Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Bill Bigelow’s Rethinking Columbus, and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.

The curriculum is framed around “cultural literacy.” Instead of vaunting old heroes like Columbus and the Founding Fathers, students study the evolution of the country’s class structure and history of racism, along with the radical labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements that arose in response. The learning process focuses on expressive writing and peer-driven discussion—giving students an outlet for anger and disillusionment but also to examine critically, perhaps for the first time, a cultural heritage that they’re often pressured to suppress but are now encouraged to embrace in defiance.

In an essay on his pedagogical approach, teacher Curtis Acosta described a project that mixed grassroots ethnography with theatrical performance. Students conducted interviews with locals about their life experiences, sculpted their words into a dramatic format, and performed the resulting theater piece before the community. Acosta recalled, “Our students were becoming scholars, historians, and artists who were living our history and making history.”

“Before I took these classes I was ashamed of my culture,” said MAS alumna Feliciano Mayra in an interview published by CultureStrike in early 2012. Chiapas-born and Tucson-raised, Mayra reflected that earlier in her adolescence, “I didn’t care about learning more about my culture; I didn’t even pay attention to what was going on around me. … I was struggling to graduate, but this class taught me that we all live in a society where we all struggle and that knowledge and facts are what help to get you through.”

This isn’t a holdover from the hippie days. Extensive research on the program’s results links it to major improvements in math, reading, and graduation rates. Right-wing state politicians, not surprisingly, reacted last year by moving to quash the program, demonizing it as racially divisive and “Marxist.” Students organized and protested nationwide in opposition, taking their radical lessons outside of the classroom, onto their streets.

Although some Tucson education activists are still challenging the crackdown in federal civil rights litigation, MAS in Tucson is, for now, moribund. Meanwhile, poor Latino students nationwide are still struggling against rampant inequality in their communities. Education activist Anita Fernández, who directs the Xican@ Institute for Teaching and Organizing at Prescott College, Tucson, says the attack on the program grows out of an underlying ideological battle in public education.

“It is neoliberal racism that is contributing to all the conditions [facing Tucson students]: poverty, anti-immigrant sentiment, public school closings, et cetera,” she says. “Ethnic Studies, particularly for brown and black youth, is a direct affront to neoliberalism—it is an attack on hegemony and the MAS program created the conditions that were so threatening to this neoliberal agenda that legislatures had to actually write legislation to stop the program. In essence, MAS turned neoliberal racism on its head—so it had to be stopped.”

But even amid all these social, economic and political constraints, it’s still possible for progressive educators and immigrant youth to flip the script on the education establishment. Low-income schools could take basic steps to make education more equitable: moving away from tests and toward rich programming that inspires and empowers disadvantaged youth, engaging poor communities in shaping education policies, and more fundamentally, changing the immigration system to allow families to stay together and for their children to live and learn freely.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, communities are finding small ways to influence school policy. In New York, the New York Immigration Coalition has organized immigrant parent-leadership groups, training parents to become advocates on issues like improving English Language Learner programs, or reforming disciplinary practices, and to develop their role as members of the wider school community.

Even without full-scale ethnic studies programs, students are incrementally pushing their schools to recognize immigrants’ unique experiences and perspectives. One small youth-led victory emerged recently in California’s Oxnard school district, where a group of indigenous Mexican youth launched a campaign a “Resolution for the Respect of Indigenous Peoples” to highlight the voices and cultures of Oaxacan youth. The resolution bars bigoted language and codifies principles of non-discrimination in the school community.

These kids might not wage a revolution from their desks. But in an inspired classroom, they can open a space in the education system for young migrants to chart their own voyage.

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