Published December 24, 2016
A Kansas lawmaker's proposal to track the citizenship status of public schoolchildren has raised alarm in one of the state's most diverse communities, where district administrators worry that even raising the question with parents and students would damage the welcoming environment they have tried to create.
Republican Rep. Allan Rothlisberg and officials of the Garden City district in western Kansas agree that under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, all students are entitled to a public education regardless of their citizenship status or that of their parents. But Rothlisberg, of Grandview Plaza, introduced his bill with the goal of calculating how much Kansas is spending to educate children who are in the U.S. without legal permission.
"What I'm trying to get across here is where our tax money is being diverted to," Rothlisberg told The Garden City Telegram. "It's not going to our children or grandchildren."
Rothlisberg's bill would require every child who enrolls in a public school for the first time to present proof of lawful presence, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate or other document. Districts would submit annual reports to the state on the total number of children they enrolled who failed to provide such proof.
No child would be identified in the annual reports, but Garden City superintendent Rick Atha said merely asking about a student's citizenship status would imperil the trusting relationship the district has tried to build with all families.
Meatpacking is a major industry in Garden City and its surrounding areas. An estimated 20 percent of its nearly 27,000 residents were foreign-born as of 2012, compared to 6.5 percent for Kansas as a whole, according to census data. The Census also estimates that a language other than English is spoken in 40 percent of Garden City homes, compared to 11 percent of all homes statewide.
"To do what I interpret this bill is asking school districts to do, we're creating an uncomfortable environment for that child to go to school, by asking that information of whether or not the student is documented or undocumented," Atha said. "We're in the business of wanting to make kids and their parents feel welcome to come to school, that school is a safe place for them."
Atha said Garden City does ask students who enroll for proof of residency, such as a utility bill or rental agreement. It also asks for a copy of a child's birth certificate to establish who can make decisions on the student's behalf.
Beyond that he said he doesn't know how many — if any — students are in the U.S. illegally, "because we don't track that information or ask for it. It's irrelevant."
Garden City places students who have recently arrived in the U.S. in newcomer classrooms, where as many as eight to 10 different languages may be spoken, assistant superintendent Darren Dennis said. He added that English language learners make up close to 44 percent of the district.
"But that's different than immigrant," Dennis said.
Rothlisberg said his bill would not cause any students to feel as if they're being discriminated, since all students would be required to provide documentation of legal presence.
"They feel alienated anyway because they know they're here illegally. So, I mean, they already know they're breaking the law," Rothlisberg said.