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Covering Immigrant Students Ahead of Elections

Jo Napolitano of The 74 advises reporters on covering newcomer students as immigration and education continue to be major political issues. She addresses word choice, educational disparities, enrollment trends and explains why this is, at its heart, a school funding story.

Photo credit: Paul Prescott/Bigstock

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Influx. Surge. Crisis.

These are just three of the (incredibly loaded) words commonly used by journalists to describe the addition of newcomer students to our nation’s public schools.

At a time when the country’s southern border has once again taken center stage ahead of a particularly consequential presidential election, reporters must be careful not to parrot the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — that casts newcomers as an unwanted burden.

Writers must instead use neutral language and question the notions put forth by those in power — presidential hopefuls, governors and mayors among them — about the purported toll these children (yes, children, not “migrants”) place on schools. And then ask educators what they’re seeing. Their perspective is arguably the most valuable and relevant, born of real-world experience — and their views might contradict the very premise of a story.  

Accepting that young immigrants pose a hardship simply by enrolling is to accept — and further — the notion that these children exist outside the norm of public education, that their addition is beyond the bounds of what can be expected of a school.

We must remember that schools are designed to educate. And, they are legally obligated to fulfill this duty for all students, regardless of their immigration status. Indeed, these children have rights. And not only around admission, but around whether schools are doing the work to help them learn English. 

Bottom line: No child in this country is more or less entitled to an education than any other. 

Immigrant education isn’t about language barriers and (an alleged) lack of classroom space. It’s about funding and planning — or a lack thereof. There were 46.2 million immigrants in the United States as of 2022, so their existence and continued arrival should be no surprise. So why does their addition shock public schools? 

Ask Why Schools Were Not Prepared for New Arrivals

Education is not a zero-sum game. To extend educational opportunity to any child — newcomer or American-born — is not to take it from another. Reporters who interrogate these baseless assumptions might discover that the problem is not the addition of newcomer children but with the school district’s poor planning, a lack of newly minted ESL staff, (a pipeline issue) and school funding

Multiple districts have sued or are suing to secure their fair share of state aid. Many – including those that, in the past, failed to adequately serve newcomer children – would meet their needs if they have a more robust budget. But even then, when money is tight, reporters must remind themselves that it is unfair, unethical and a breach of duty for a school to single out any group of children — to deny their entry, withhold much-needed services or fail to meet their educational needs. 

We, as a nation, must not rank children by immigration status. 

Reporters examining a school district’s needs might check its current financing at the federal, state and local levels to see if there is a disparity. If so, that is hardly a newcomer child’s fault. 

Here are other sources reporters can consult to investigate and compare school funding:

  • Reports like this published by The World Bank reveal the U.S. government’s expenditure on education by the percent of GDP.  Spoiler: It shrunk from 6.7% in 2009 to 4.8% in 2016 and stood at just 5.4% in 2020.
  • Other data tells a compelling story of highs and lows in the U.S. Department of Education outlays — including a massive uptick in COVID-era spending — and a predicted future downturn. Let’s find out where this money was spent and what’s to be cut in the coming years.
  • Examine federal investment in education versus the military.
  • Note that state-by-state spending took a massive hit after the global economic collapse: A journalist might compare one state to the next to find out whether they are primarily funded by local, state or federal sources — and what those differences mean to multilingual learners.
  • Explore specific federal allocations for multilingual learners year over year. Have they kept pace with a growing population?
  • Investigate the overall lack of preparedness among districts seeing an uptick in multilingual learners: U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly a half a million encounters with unaccompanied children since 2021. Not a single school district in this country should be surprised. 

Investigate How Multilingual Students Are Being Served and Enrollment Trends

So, what have teacher’s colleges done to increase the number of educators who can effectively serve this population? And what are schools doing right now in terms of professional development to further the skills of non-ESL staff, including classroom teachers, to assist multilingual children?

A reporter might find that far too many schools give just a few hours of instruction to – for example – mathematics, history and science teachers about working with this population. In many cases, these children are instructed to simply take their non-ESL course materials to their ESL teacher for interpretation, an unrealistic and unfair burden for teacher and student alike. 

What are schools doing to change this? A reporter might identify a local campus with a high graduation rate for multilingual learners — or, if it’s an elementary or middle school, high test scores compared to the state average — and find out what these campuses are doing right. Schools that know they’re being targeted for best practices might be amenable to having a reporter visit campus for a day: There, they could see, for example, whether translation services are provided or if teachers made an effort to use non-verbal cues to help children understand the material. 

And if schools claim it costs more to educate a multilingual child, ask how. Studies are mixed. And what about the evergreen story of declining school enrollment? Where do these numbers stand now? We can’t allow school officials to bemoan shrinking enrollment and begrudge newcomer students who are adding to the rolls

Add Context About Immigrant Students, and Carefully Consider These Factors

Remember that some statistics show children who were formerly classified as multilingual learners but left such programs as they became proficient in English outperform students who were never in ESL programs. 

Consider, too, the enormous income gap between high school dropouts and those who obtain a bachelor’s degree. Ask school officials and politicians how their cities might be better off if they contain greater numbers of undereducated residents, which is exactly what will happen if they erect barriers to enrollment for newcomer children or fail to support those they do admit. 

Talk to economists about the overall impact of turning children away through stringent enrollment- and college-aid restrictions

How does this satisfy the nation’s growing need for a highly educated workforce? 

As reporters, we must remember to consider big-picture ideas, including that immigrants add mightily to the nation’s economy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in January found that refugees and asylum seekers, for example, had a positive net fiscal impact on the U.S. government over a 15-year period ending in 2019, totaling $123.8 billion. 

According to the Department, the net fiscal benefit to the federal government was roughly $31.5 billion and approximately $92.3 billion to state and local governments.

So why are we calling immigrants a drain? 

And why, when we report on newcomer students, do we neglect to explain why they are fleeing their homelands? Without this context, it can be difficult to understand why they would make this journey in the first place, why they would arrive homeless, and why they would enroll in school communities that are hostile to their existence. 

In short, we must be vigilant in identifying and avoiding words that stereotype newcomers — and beware of the use of media to further scapegoatism.