A massive influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, into North Carolina has thrust thousands of non-English speaking students into the public school system, leaving local teachers and administrators with a daunting task in their efforts to educate this expanding population.
“In the last 10 years, 1.4 million new residents settled in the state,” concluded a study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington D.C. “The equivalent of adding five Raleighs…[t]his large-scale population growth is bringing traffic, pollution, overcrowded schools and lack of affordable housing in the state, decreasing quality of life and straining vital natural resources.”
FAIR’s Immigration Impact Report also said the trend was seen some years ago when, in 2002, statistics showed attendance in the Limited English Proficiency/English Language Learning instruction programs jumped 494 percentage points within 10 years.
And the numbers keep climbing. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the Latino population increased by 138,654 in North Carolina between the 2000 Census and July 1, 2004, from 378,963 to 517,617, a gain of nearly 37 percent, with an estimated 300,000 of those being illegal immigrants.
The problem has become so acute that officials have named it one of the major challenges facing county government across the state.
“Hispanic and Latino residents are transforming county services,” said a report taken from the Long-Range Planning and Visioning Project after the N.C. Association of County Commissioners School of Government met in Chapel Hill in August 2004. “Hispanic and Latino populations present social, cultural and fiscal challenges for county health and public education services. Counties are asked to help educate and assimilate the growing Hispanic population who come from different parts of Mexico, South America and Central America.”
The 1982 Supreme Court decision of Plyler v. Doe forced public schools to provide both documented and undocumented youngsters a primary and secondary education. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has overwhelmed school systems throughout the state and left them searching for solutions.
North Carolina State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee says dealing with the huge numbers of immigrants coming into the state is extremely challenging.
“It’s very overwhelming,” he said. “I get a lot of complaints from superintendents and principals from all over the state that tell me these children are interfering with the education process of the other children.”
Jack Martin, Special Projects Director for FAIR said the children of illegal immigrants degrade instruction to American kids.
Not only do the children of undocumented workers put a strain in the classroom, Martin said, but these children also empty the pockets of valid North Carolina citizens who are responsible for footing the enormous bill.
“[The illegal immigrants] are breaking the piggy bank,” he said. “In North Carolina it costs $450 million for educating children. It’s a big expense and the taxpayers are picking up the cost.”
Martin’s assessment isn’t off base. In 2004, the United States General Accounting Office estimated the per-pupil expenditure for illegal alien children was $6,000.
Chairman Lee said there are also additional costs associated with educating immigrant children, including the support staff and social workers needed at individual school sites to help the children.
“It’s a tremendous financial burden,” he said. “It’s being borne by the taxpayers who underwrite the cost of them.”
There is more than money issues to consider. Lee said the problems with immigrant students are multiplying and growing within the state.
He said immigrant children who register for school only come to school on a sporadic basis, and there is a definite language barrier for those who attend.
“Most of the children are unable to speak English,” Lee said. “And, in most instances, they are illiterate in their own language,”
Currently the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District is the hardest hit by immigrants, with more than 10 percent of their student body made up of non-United States citizens. He said one school in the district boasts more than a 60 percent immigrant student rate.
“They have the largest number of Latino-Hispanic students,” Lee said. “They are performing very low on the end-of-grade tests.”
An article written by Franco Ordonez in dThe Charlotte Observer stated Katherine Meads, director of English as a Second Language (ESL) for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has seen the number of students learning to speak English jump from 2,000 to 10,000 in the past 10 years.
In an educational article in the San Antonio Express-News, writer Lucy Hood said the immigrant numbers in many states, including North Carolina are critical and there needs to be a response.
Unfortunately, Chairman Lee said, there is no ready solution to the mounting problem. “We don’t know,” he said. “There aren’t many options. We are very uncertain as to what we are going to do at this time. It’s very hard to know if there is a breaking point at some point and what our response will be.”
FAIR said the only way to stop the wave of immigrants into the state is to go after the parents by enforcing a program of document verification and changing laws to eliminate illegal immigrants and bring legal immigrants more slowly into the country.
“Our policies are aimed at stopping the flow of illegal immigrants,” Martin said. “We need to discourage them from coming … and creating conditions that would encourage illegal immigrants to go back home.”
Karen Welsh is a contributing editor for Carolina Journal.