“Wait!” you say. “Don’t all North Carolina school-age children already have access to a free public education?” Not children with undocumented immigrant status. Earlier this year North Carolina came under fire when some >>school districts refused to enroll immigrant children in school.
Civil rights groups filed a complaint, asking the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation. In the complaint, Buncombe and Union County Schools told two seventeen-year-olds with limited English skills that they were too old to enroll in High School. Under North Carolina law, all students under age 21 without a high school degree are entitled to a free public education.
Fast forward three months later. The North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. June Atkinson, has instructed the school districts to immediately enroll all children who seek an education, regardless of immigrant status. Atkinson’s letter is effectively serving as a “passport” for the children involved.
Matt Ellinwood with the NC Justice Center has been working with many of the students and told me the letter has gone a long way in helping cut through the red tape: “It helps a lot. The question is will it get into the all the hands of the people who are sitting at the front desk when the kids go to register at school?”
The NC Justice Center has been helping students and their families gain access to education, but not everyone knows how to use them as a resource. “This is a community that is unseen. There are a lot of people who go to school [to enroll] and if the school denies them, they think that’s that. I’ve worked with immigrants who have gone back to their countries of origin because they don’t want to live somewhere they can’t go to school,” Ellinwood said.
Ellinwood explained the way things “should” work, according to law, is that students who want to enroll should be immediately enrolled. The necessary paperwork can be figured out later. When school systems add unnecessary hoops, students miss days or even months of school.
So why should we care? If you don’t care just because you believe in the importance of education, Ellinwood makes this point: “The higher level of education you receive, the less likely you will need public assistance. When we talk about denying education, we set people up for a situation in life where they’re more likely to become incarcerated and less likely to earn a living wage,” he said.
So spread the word. If you have access to immigrant communities, >>make sure they see Secretary Atkinson’s letter and use it.