In a drastic and unprecedented move, Illinois education officials on Thursday voted to cut off state funds to the Elmwood Park school district for refusing to admit an immigrant teen to its high school.
The action not only blocks the district from collecting $3.3 million in state aid, but could bar its student athletes from competition. Although district officials can appeal, it remains unclear whether doing so would enable them to receive their next state payment of $331,587 due next week.
Amid tense and emotional exchanges with district officials Thursday, the Illinois State Board of Education signaled that it will move swiftly and powerfully to protect the right of immigrant children to go to public schools, regardless of their immigration status.
“Frankly, I’m offended that we are dealing with this,” said board chairman Jesse Ruiz, who mentioned that his own father had been an undocumented immigrant from Mexico before becoming a citizen.
Elmwood Park District 401 depends on the state money to operate, district attorney John Murphy said. “They have salaries they have to meet. They have teachers. If they take a big hit, they can’t function.”
The district stood firm at the state board meeting Thursday in Springfield, arguing that the student who wanted to enroll in November was here on a tourist visa, and therefore had no right to attend school.
A U.S. Supreme Court case and state law guarantees a free public education to undocumented students—those who cannot prove they are in the country legally.
But the school district argued that the student was neither an undocumented immigrant nor a legal resident. Instead, the district said the Ecuadorean teen—identified only as Sharon M.—was here on a valid tourist visa, which implied that she was here temporarily and would soon return to her home country. District officials have said they believe they are not obliged to educate those who are not residents and will continue to turn away students on tourist visas.
The saga began in November, when the 14-year-old girl tried to enroll at Elmwood Park High School.
The teen had lived with her mother and older sister in the Chicago suburbs for several years and attended schools in the area, said attorneys at the state board. But the girl’s mother suffered a stroke and moved to Florida, and the girl moved in with a friend in Elmwood Park.
Elmwood Park school officials refused to admit the girl and allegedly told her they would report her to immigration authorities, said Alonzo Rivas, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who talked to the girl about suing the district.