Schools: Immigrant Families Leaving Arizona Because of New Immigration Law

Pat Kossan, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), May. 28, 2010

Reports are surfacing around the Valley that illegal-immigrant families with school-age children are fleeing Arizona because of a new immigration law.

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Many Latino-heavy school districts say the recession already has pushed many of their families out of state to look for work. The passage of Senate Bill 1070, which widens enforcement of immigration law, has tipped the balance for some parents who tried to stick it out.

For schools, the impact could be loss of students and, as a result, loss of state funding and parent support. The state could see savings.

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Teachers and principals at Alhambra elementary schools in west Phoenix, for example, are saying goodbye to core volunteer parents, who tell them that the new migration law threatens their family stability and that they must leave. The district expects the new law to drive out an extra 200 to 300 students over the summer.

Balsz Elementary District in east Phoenix lost 70 families in the past 30 days, an unprecedented number, officials said.

In contrast, Isaac Elementary District in Phoenix, where 96 percent of its 8,058 students are Latino, lost fewer students than usual after its Christmas break, and its May enrollment grew by 20 students over last year.

At Balsz, a sense of community is fraying. Every morning for the past two years, 20 to 30 parents in orange T-shirts have gathered at designated spots to walk their children to four elementary schools.

The number of those parents, mostly Latino, began to dwindle in January after the migration bill was introduced. By spring, no one was showing up. The district’s “Walking School Bus Club” ceased to exist.

Those parents were too fearful to walk the streets, parents and school officials say. {snip}

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The impact debate

Driving out illegal immigrants is the stated purpose of Senate Bill 1070. {snip}

There is no precise count of Arizona schoolchildren who live with families that have one or more undocumented members.

About 170,000 of Arizona’s 1 million K-12 students are children of immigrants and include both citizens and non-citizens, according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center study.

For every net decline of one student, a school loses an average of $4,404 in state money. The total amount of funding for the 170,000 children of immigrants is about $749 million, or 16 percent, of the state’s education budget.

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A sizable loss of undocumented families could reduce crowding in some schools and allow others to combine classrooms and reduce teaching staff, said Matthew Ladner, research director for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, which has not taken a stance on the law.

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School officials, however, say that if many immigrant families leave, their schools will suffer.

Losing a share of students does not yield commensurate cost savings for schools, they said. For example, losing 10 students at the third-grade level often won’t necessarily save a teacher’s salary, and the district must still pay for property maintenance.

Already hit by state budget cuts, schools that lose per-student funding may not be able to pay for manageable class sizes, reading specialists and tutoring.

“When you lose kids, you lose money,” Balsz Superintendent Jeffrey Smith said. “It gives you less to work with.”

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What schools say

Although the last day of school is usually joyful, this year, some schools fear what may happen this summer.

Worry has spread through the sprawling, 14,538-student Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix, which has lost about 2.5 percent, or about 363 students, a year since 2008. That’s when a new law took effect that made it more difficult for employers to hire undocumented workers and the recession began ripping away jobs in earnest.

Latino students make up 75 percent of Alhambra’s enrollment. Before SB 1070 became law, families in which one parent was legal could still survive. But jobs remain tight, and now, any undocumented family member can be deported after getting a traffic ticket.

Volunteers are dwindling, and fewer parents are showing up for parent coaching and teacher meetings, Alhambra Superintendent Jim Rice said. This summer, the district expects to lose twice as many students, Rice added.

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