ORLANDO – A federal class-action lawsuit has been filed against the School Board of Collier County challenging a policy that prevents immigrants 16 years or older from enrolling in public high school.
Florida law does not establish a maximum age for public education.
“The fundamental question is: Do they have a right to go to school? The U.S. Supreme Court has said that even kids who are here undocumented have a right to public education,” Tania Galloni, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Florida Record.
Over the past few years, the influx of unaccompanied minors entering the United States has resulted in more children, many of them teenagers, who are not proficient in English when they attempt to enroll in public school. According to research from the Pew Institute, many of the foreign-born youth were 16 or 17 when they entered the country.
On Aug. 1, 2013, the Collier County School Board enacted a policy stipulating that any child 17 years old or older, who could not meet graduation requirements by the end of the school year in which they turned 19, could not attend a regular high school. Instead, they are referred to an adult education program at Immokalee Technical Center, which is not free.
The program offered to these students at ITech does not teach the skills and subject matters required under the Florida Standards, which governs public education, the complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida said. Although the students would learn the English skills required to get a job, they would not receive instruction in basic subject areas of math, science or social studies, as the law requires.
“I would expect that plenty of districts are getting more kids. But we are not getting complaints for all of those districts, which indicates they are probably absorbing the immigrant students without trying to keep them out,” Galloni said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing three teens, two Guatemalan and one Haitian, who were denied enrollment based on this policy. A motion has been filed to extend the lawsuit to all foreign-born students the Collier school system has turned away because of their age.
Whether a student can earn enough credits to graduate is not a legitimate barrier to enrollment, Galloni said, adding that the Collier policy violates both federal and state laws. Under Florida law, education is compulsory, without exception, until age 16. All students over age 16 who want to drop out must be counseled and sign documents acknowledging that they understand the consequences of not completing their education.
“Florida, as a state, places a premium on education," Galloni said. "There are reasons for keeping kids in school."
According the Southern Poverty Law Center’s attorney, in addition to basic education, there are other intangible benefits associated with going to school. They include being around peers and learning cultural norms, as well as participation in academic enrichment, sports, or extra-curricular activities.
“Defendants deny these students equal access to educational opportunities offered in high school, the opportunity to earn credits toward a high school diploma, and the opportunity to learn skills and core subject matter that they will need in the future, thereby limiting their educational opportunities, career opportunities, and earning potential,” the complaint said.