Equal Access to Public Education for All Students Regardless of Immigration Status

April 2022 — The Massachusetts Attorney General office issued an advisory that state and federal law require to state educational agencies and local school districts to provide all elementary and secondary students with equal access to public education—irrespective of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status.

“Our schools play a critically important role in supporting vulnerable populations, including newcomer and refugee school- aged children. As school districts across Massachusetts have recently seen increases of newly arrived students resettling throughout the state as a result of various global circumstances, effectively fulfilling obligations to newly arrived students remains crucial,” the advisory stated.

Referencing to Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), the Supreme Court held that public elementary and secondary schools may not deny any child residing in the applicable jurisdiction access to public education—whether the child is present in the country legally or not. Plyler made clear that a child’s immigration or citizenship status (or that of the child’s parent or guardian) is not relevant to the child’s right to a public education. As the Court explained, “By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.” Plyler, 457 U.S. at 223. Moreover, the Massachusetts Constitution, pt. II, c. 5, § 2, imposes a broad duty “to provide an education for all [ ] children, rich and poor, in every city and town in the Commonwealth at the public school level…” McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. 545, 606 (1993).

Based on these obligations, the advisory reminded that “school districts must not preclude any student from enrolling in school when the student meets the legal requirements of age and residency. School districts should generally avoid drawing conclusions about a prospective student’s immigration status and how it may or may not be affected by enrolling in school whether a visa is currently valid, whether someone has overstayed a visa, or someone has failed to comply with the terms of a visa, etc.”  In many cases when the families do not have the documents that school districts normally use for the enrollment, school districts are encouraged to work with families to find alternative ways to establish residency or proof of age and facilitate the enrollment of students without delay.

The advisory also reminded of the Massachusetts Student Anti-Discrimination Act, Massachusetts Anti-Bullying law,Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, and The Equal Educational Opportunities Act which provide the protection to all children from discrimination, bullying,  regardless on the basis of race, region, sex or national original by elementary and secondary schools and that to provide the English Learner students with appropriate resources to overcome to language barrier.