While the Obama administration takes action to stem the flow of unaccompanied minors across the Southwest border and contain the mounting political blowback, many of these children have already turned up in public schools and will continue to do so in the months ahead.
Under federal law, they are entitled to a free public education regardless of their immigration status. Just two months ago, the U.S. Department of Education reminded school districts of their legal obligations when it comes to undocumented students.
Some districts may get so few of these young immigrants that they will absorb the costs of educating them with relative ease. But others have already seen a significant uptick in their numbers and anticipate more, so the impact on their resources could be greater. (The school board and superintendent in Miami-Dade, for instance, have already made it clear that they are after more help from the federal government to help cover the costs of hundreds of students from the wave or young immigrants.)
Those dynamics are raising questions among educators and advocates for school districts about what, if any, kind of help the feds might provide to schools as tens of thousands of children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continue settling into communities while awaiting deportation proceedings.
Right now, the Obama administration's focus is on beefing up resources for the frontline agencies that are dealing with unaccompanied minors: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Since last October, nearly 60,000 children and youth traveling alone have illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
The $3.7 billion in emergency funding that President Barack Obama is seeking from Congress would mostly flow to Homeland Security to pay for stepped-up enforcement and quicker deportation proceedings, and to Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for housing and caring for unaccompanied minors after they are released from U.S. Border Patrol custody.
Help for schools?
What is available to public schools are federal Title III funds that largely help districts pay for services for English-language learners. However, under federal law, states may set aside as much as 15 percent of their Title III funds for districts to use specifically for providing services to recently-arrived immigrants (most of whom are also English-learners).
In a check with a few of the major immigrant-gateway states, I found a lot of variation in how much is set aside for recent arrivals.
New York State, in 2013-14, distributed 10.5 percent of its $55 million in Title III funds to impacted districts in this way, which was slightly less than it did in the previous two school years. Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state's department of education explained that the funding stream is "not nimble" and that it will likely take a year or two for funding to catch up with what the state expects to be a pretty significant inflow of students from this wave of Central American immigration. New York City officials, for example, already estimate that more than 3,000 minors who crossed the border in the surge that began last fall have landed there.
California, which received roughly $149 million in Title III grants for the past school year, set aside a smaller share than New York: about 5 percent, or $8 million, according to a state education department spokeswoman.
And in Texas, state education officials set aside 6 percent of their $98 million Title III grant, or $5.9 million, for the 2013-14 school year, according to a state education agency spokeswoman.
Some advocates for school districts tell me that Title III affords states some flexibility in how they determine which districts are eligible for the immigrant-education grants and that they'd like to see more states use that flexibility. The federal education agency, they argue, could use its influence to persuade states to do so, especially in response to unaccompanied minor surge.
For the time being, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has assigned members of his team to track requests for help and resources that come into his agency from states, districts, and schools about this issue, according to spokeswoman Dorie Nolt.