Public Education For All – Regardless of Citizenship

By: Jessica Miraglia

In 1982, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 vote decision in Plyler v. Doe holding that it is unconstitutional for a state to deny any child a free public education because of their immigration status.  The Supreme Court based this holding on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The Court explained that a state may not offer a free public education to children with United States citizenship while rejecting undocumented children.  A state may not do this because the harm that will occur to the rejected undocumented children and society as a whole is much greater than the resources that the schools claim they will save by denying a free education to the undocumented children.  It is very important to allow these children access to a free public education in order to reassure them that they will be able to contribute to society and be given the tools needed to escape poverty.  Additionally, it is not fair to the children to punish them, by not allowing them access to a free public education, because of decisions their parent’s made.  These children did not choose to come to the United States illegally; therefore they should not be punished now that they are here.

Since 1982, there have been several reported incidences of public school districts implementing enrollment procedures that are either unconstitutional on their face or have an unconstitutional effect.  In 2011 and 2014, in order to try and stop the discrimination based on immigration status, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice sent out letters to public school districts across the United States reminding them that they could not deny a free public education to a child based on their immigration status.  These enrollment procedures were unlawfully asking about the immigration status of the child and their parents, which would either expressly prevent them from enrolling at the school or cause them to not enroll in fear of being reported to the authorities for being undocumented.  This letter advised the school districts what types of enrollment procedures are acceptable; including, but not limited to, what types of documents can be accepted to prove residency or age and what types of documents the school may not require for enrollment like social security numbers or domestic birth certificates.  Even today, in 2015, the National Immigration Law Center is still fighting for non-discriminatory free public education access to all undocumented children and trying to get the DREAM Act passed.  This Act would provide undocumented people who came to the United States at a young age with the tools needed to gain citizenship and obtain higher education.


Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).

DREAM Act (and DREAM-like), National Immigration Law Center, (last visited Oct. 18, 2015).

Letters from U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice to public school districts throughout the United States (May 6, 2011 and May 8, 2014) (on file with the ACLU).

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