Schools in San Benito, Texas, will open their doors to approximately 480 new students on Monday: migrant children housed in two shelters within the district’s boundaries.
But what’s not clear yet is who will pay for their education.
The facilities house migrant children who’ve crossed the border alone or been separated from their families. They’re both overseen by private contractor Southwest Key under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a lucrative business: Southwest Key received $458 million from the federal government this year, nearly double the $286 million it received in 2017.
Under an agreement San Benito signed with Southwest Key in May, the students enrolled as regular pupils of the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District. That means their education will be largely funded by the state of Texas, not Southwest Key or the federal government.
But right now, the district and state can’t agree on funding. San Benito argues it’s the state’s responsibility to enroll and fund the migrant kids’ educations, as it would any other student. But the state says the federal government is responsible. Regardless of who pays, though, the children are legally entitled to an education.
“As long as the child is in a federal facility, the federal government takes the role of providing the education for that child,” said Lauren Callahan, a spokesperson for the agency. “When asked by our districts, we’ve made known to our districts that should they choose to voluntarily provide services, they should coordinate that with the federal government.”
The state should have no role in their education — including financially, she said.
“We're in uncharted territory because of the length of time and because it's just not been as much of an issue beforehand.”
But the district is still forging ahead with the plan, even though the superintendent said he hasn’t spoken directly with the Texas Education Agency, which funds the majority of students’ education. The district already designated 19 teachers to work with children in portable classrooms on the two Southwest Key facilities and purchased Chromebooks, iPads, and textbooks for the children.
San Benito modeled its agreement off of the neighboring Harlingen district program, which has been operating since 2013. Harlingen’s program is much smaller — the district only sends one teacher to Southwest Key, spokesman Shane Strubhart said. And the program has never gotten pushback from the Texas Education Agency over funding.
Nate Carman, the San Benito superintendent, expects about a $2.8 million contribution from Texas to fund the program, with $5,797 in funds per student. (San Benito is a “property-poor” district in Texas, which means local taxes from other districts supplement much of San Benito’s local taxes for education. In 2018-2019, the state will pay the district $89 million for education, and local taxes pay $14 million, according to a budget adopted in June.) The children will be counted as regular students, representing an approximately 5 percent increase in the district’s total enrollment.
“Absolutely it’s the right thing to do,” Carman said. He believes San Benito is better equipped to educate children in the facilities than the shelters themselves.
“They're there to provide care for those children,” he said. “But they don't have the systems that we do in place to provide the full well-rounded appropriate public education for those kids.”
Plyler vs. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, found that states cannot use a child’s immigration status to deny him or her an education.
“That's why there's no need for us to seek any additional funding from Southwest Key, because it's a requirement in the state of Texas to provide that to these students, whether it's through a public school district or one of the various charter systems,” Carman said.
But the Texas Education Agency told VICE News Plyler does not apply since the students are in federal facilities — meaning the state have no role in facilities like Southwest Key.
The agency did not answer specific questions about whether it would attempt to recoup funds from districts like San Benito and Harlingen that plan to use or already use state money to enroll students residing in shelters.
Michael Olivas, Director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center and the author of a book on Plyler, said the issue of educating children in migrant shelters has yet to be decided by the courts. But he expects the state would need to take responsibility.
“No matter what custody children are in, there are truancy laws that are established by the state that require these children be educated,” he said
“I will simply say that the state has the obligation,” he said. “If they want to seek their own money for doing so, they are certainly entitled to do so. There is money available and there is a collateral simultaneous obligation that the federal government has because it created this mess.”
The extended period of time children stay in shelters has complicated the issue, he said. The average length of stay in shelters was 57 days by July 2018, according to the Administration for Children and Families. And federal judge ordered all separated families to be reunited within 30 days, a deadline that the government has not met for 483 kids as of Friday — with no clear plans for how long they will be kept in facilities.
“They usually just aren't stuck in facilities long enough for them to be in round-the-clock schooling like is maybe needed today,” he said. “We're in uncharted territory because of the length of time and because it's just not been as much of an issue beforehand.”
The agency’s position has also discouraged other districts from enrolling kids housed in migrant shelters.
Esperanza Zendejas, superintendent of the Brownsville Independent School District, reached out to the Texas Education Agency to complain that students in migrant shelters were not receiving adequate education. On August 6, she received a letter back explaining that those children fell under federal jurisdiction, rather than state.
“The Texas Education Agency (TEA) received your complaint concerning students housed in temporary centers in Brownsville, TX not receiving required educational services,” the response read. “TEA has determined that your allegations do not fall within the jurisdiction of TEA. Allegations related to educational services for students housed in temporary custody are handled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
“To me it’s questionable whether I can enroll the kids and claim the funding,” Zendejas said.
“As a superintendent, I don't want five years from now for the state of Texas to say hey, these kids were educated and do not fall under jurisdiction. We paid you for all these kids. You owe us now for all this amount. ”
But until she gets more clarity on the matter, she’s not planning to enroll children in Southwest Key facilities in Brownsville’s public schools.
Cover image: Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at an immigration shelter in Texas, on Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)