Access to Education is an Important Component of Immigrant Integration

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”  – Chief Justice Earl Warren, United States Supreme Court, 1954.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the case of educational access for all, adequate access is still continuing along its path toward justice. Access to an adequate education is fundamentally important not only for the growth and future well-being of a child, but for the broader community—now and in the future—within which that child resides. Educational access affects the future life choices available to a child and the extent to which that individual can contribute civically and economically to his or her community. As such, access to education is important for all children, including immigrant children and citizen children of immigrant parents. And access to education is an important component of immigrant integration. But as logical as this sounds, education access remains a sizeable barrier for many children and their families in the United States.

Although the introductory quote grew from the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it remains relevant today, particularly within the context of immigration, and the education access of immigrant and mixed-status families. For immigrant children accessing education, a pivotal decision came in 1982. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe struck down a 1975 state of Texas law denying state funding to educate undocumented children of undocumented parents. The Court’s ruling centered on their decision that not allowing undocumented school-age children to attend school and receive an education is a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, Plyler v. Doe (1982) states

“The State has no assurance that any child, citizen or not, will employ the education provided by the State within the confines of the State’s borders. In any event, the record is clear that many of the undocumented children disabled by this classification will remain in this country indefinitely, and that some will become lawful residents or citizens of the United States. It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation…If the State is to deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders, that denial must be justified by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest. No such showing was made here” (Plyler v. Doe 1982).

In the ruling, Justice Marshall states

“I continue to believe that an individual’s interest in education is fundamental, and that this view is amply supported by the unique status accorded public education by our society, and by the close relationship between education and some of our most basic constitutional values… It continues to be my view that a class-based denial of public education is utterly incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” (Plyler v. Doe 1982).

Furthermore, Justice Blackmun states

“In my view, when the State provides an education to some and denies it to others, it immediately and inevitably creates class distinctions of a type fundamentally inconsistent with those purposes, mentioned above, of the Equal Protection Clause. Children denied an education are placed at a permanent and insurmountable competitive disadvantage, for an uneducated child is denied even the opportunity to achieve. And when those children are members of an identifiable group, that group – through the State’s action – will have been converted into a discrete underclass. Other benefits provided by the State, such as housing and public assistance, are of course important; to an individual in immediate need, they may be more desirable than the right to be educated. But classifications involving the complete denial of education are in a sense unique, for they strike at the heart of equal protection values by involving the State in the creation of permanent class distinctions.” (Plyler v. Doe 1982).

As education access for all, including immigrants, continues its trajectory along the arc bending toward justice, we must understand why education for all is important for communities. Public education for the public good plays a central role in strengthening the social capital of a place. According to Putnam, social capital is the idea that social networks have value. “A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society…Trustworthiness lubricates social life. Frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to produce a norm of generalized reciprocity. Civic engagement and social capital entail mutual obligation and responsibility for action,” states Putnam. Honesty and trust are core components of reciprocity and trusting communities tend to operate more efficiently than distrustful or fearful communities. And people who are trusting are typically more engaged in community life.

Putnam suggests that there are socially desirable impacts of cultivating, growing, and strengthening social capital in communities. Abundant social capital consists of: making it easier to resolve collective problems; allowing communities to advance efficiently; building healthy relationships that widen awareness regarding commonalities, creates tolerance across differences, reduces cynicism, and fosters empathy; improving the flow of information that helps us reach individual goals; and improving individual and public health and wellness and removes isolation. Clearly, there are strong links between social capital, education, and receptivity in communities, particularly the role of educational organizations in strengthening both receptivity and social capital. As such, access to education is an important component of receptivity and immigrant integration for open and cohesive communities.

Welcoming and integration minded communities might consider encouraging the building up of social capital within the context of public education. One way in which to do this is to ensure adequate access to education for all as a means of strengthening communities. Concerning education specifically, Putnam uses data to suggest that, in much the same way that high social capital correlates with greater child well-being and health, states with high social capital scores on the Social Capital Index also correlate with higher student standardized test scores taken in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as with graduation rates. Putnam’s analysis “reconfirms decades of research showing that community involvement is crucial to schools’ success. These studies have found that student learning is influenced not only by what happens in school and at home, but also by social networks, norms, and trust in the school and the wider community.”

Education in the context of social capital can also be discussed within the concept of social justice. Zajda, Majhanovich, and Rust define social justice as “the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understand and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.” Concerning urban social geography specifically, David Harvey has spoken at length on ideas of social justice and the city. Harvey specifically uses Iris Young’s “five faces of oppression” in the context of considering the struggle to create liveable cities and workable environments for the twenty-first century through several just planning and policy practices. These planning and policy practices are an effective foundation upon which institutions, organizations, and communities may begin to construct their thoughts on both short- and long-term goals and objectives.  Public education institutions are viewed as important to a community’s efforts at building and strengthening social capital and fostering social justice. When thinking about setting goals, formulating strategic plans, and planning and implementing policy, including policies of inclusion toward immigrant and mixed-status families, school systems and individual schools will do well to bear in mind the short- and long-term outcomes of social capital and social justice and how those concepts relate to building strong and resilient communities.

While access to education is an important component to effective integration, one of the many barriers new immigrants, children of immigrants and their parents face when interacting with public education is the language barrier. Clearly, ensuring that everyone—regardless of background—has access to an adequate education is in the best interest for all, at the national, regional, local, and community scale. Disenfranchised population groups only lead to further problems for individuals as well as for entire communities. Therefore, it is important for local communities and places, states, and the country as a whole to seek out and support education policies that are the most inclusive, beneficial, integrative, and efficient for all students—including immigrants—and to denounce proposed policies or policy changes that ultimately serve to divide and disenfranchise a certain group of students.

Further Reading

Harvey, David (1993), “Social Justice, Postmodernism, and the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 16: 588-601.

Harvey, David (1973), Social Justice and the City, London: Edward Arnold.

McDaniel, Paul N. (2013), Receptivity in a New Immigrant Gateway: Immigrant Settlement Geography, Public Education, and Immigrant Integration in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charlotte, NC: The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Putnam, Robert D. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ramalingam, Vidhya (2013), Integration: What Works?, London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Young, I. M. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zajda, Joseph, Suzanne Majhanovich, and Val Rust (2006), “Education and Social Justice: Issues of Liberty and Equality in the Global Culture,” In Education and Social Justice, Dordrecht: Springer.


One comment

  1. […] component of a comprehensive strategy, but there are also actions aimed at encouraging language, education, cultural, social, and other forms of integration, all of which are interrelated. Immigrant […]


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