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New York To Review Districts' Enrollment Policies for Unaccompanied Minors

By guest blogger Madeline Will

New York state officials are launching a compliance review of school districts' enrollment policies and procedures for unaccompanied minors and other undocumented students to see if children are being denied their constitutional right to an education. 

Announced today by several state officials, the education department and state attorney general's office will conduct the review, initially focusing on districts which have experienced the largest influx of unaccompanied minors from Central American countries: districts in Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, and Westchester Counties. The joint review is intended to identify if the districts have policies or procedures that impede the ability of students to enroll in school because of their citizenship or immigration status, or that of their parents.

Under federal law, students are entitled to a free public education regardless of their immigration status. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education reminded school districts of their legal obligations when it comes to undocumented students.

Earlier this month, more than 30 Hispanic students said that they were not allowed to take classes at public schools in Long Island (part of Nassau County), prompting a separate investigation, according to The New York Times

"We have a legal and a moral obligation to provide every child, no matter where they come from or what they look like, with an education," said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch in a statement. "And we're going to do everything possible to make sure that happens. The department will take strong and swift action against any district that breaks the law and denies a child a seat in a classroom."

State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. added in a statement: "We will not stand by while districts ignore the law and prevent these children from receiving an education. Department staff has already started this process, and we won't stop until we're sure every district is following the law and every child is in school."

Starting last fall, an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador began streaming through the U.S.-Mexico border, reaching a peak in May and June that has since tapered off. Many of the youths have since scattered around the country to be reunited with family members, while school districts had to gear up to meet the needs of the new influx. 

In September, the New York education department issued a memo to districts on their obligations to enroll all resident students regardless of their immigration status. 

But earlier this month, the department launched an investigation of enrollment policies in the Hempstead school district in Long Island, after allegations that it was preventing 34 Hispanic children from receiving an education. Following the investigation, the district committed to enroll the students—a report to the department on the Hempstead policies is expected today. 

Funding has been an issue for districts: Last year, New York state distributed 10.5 percent of its $55 million in Title III funds to impacted districts for the specific pupose of providing services to recently-arrived immigrants. A state education department spokesman told Education Week's Lesli Maxwell that it would take a year or two for funding to catch up to the influx.

In her statement, Tisch said the Board of Regents will announce a proposal later this fall calling for additional state aid for districts who have an influx of new students this school year. She also said the board is asking the state's Congressional delegation to support federal funding for these districts. 

The state education department will also meet with community organizations and advocates across New York to give technical assistance and provide information on the legal obligations of districts and the due process rights of affected students. 

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