Educational access for some

9 Oct

Today in California, Governor Jerry Brown signed the second part of the Dream Act, allowing undocumented college students to access to state-funded financial aid ( The governor issued a statement explaining:

“Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking… The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us.”

Of course, the legislation has its opposition. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly objects to the Dream Act’s provision, arguing:

“[California already offers] students in the country illegally in-state tuition; legally documented students from the next state over can only dream of such a benefit.”

Donnelly makes an appealing case, pitting undocumented immigrant students against US born and documented students. However, it turns out that “legally documented” students are not all equal. For US citizens, educational access depends on your zip code. The Wall Street Journal reports (

“In the last year, parents in [Ohio], Connecticut, Kentucky and Missouri have all been arrested—and await sentencing—for enrolling their children in better public schools outside of their districts.

These arrests represent two major forms of exasperation. First is that of parents whose children are zoned into failing public schools—they can’t afford private schooling, they can’t access school vouchers, and they haven’t won or haven’t even been able to enter a lottery for a better charter school. Then there’s the exasperation of school officials finding it more and more difficult to deal with these boundary-hopping parents.

From California to Massachusetts, districts are hiring special investigators to follow children from school to their homes to determine their true residences and decide if they ‘belong’ at high-achieving public schools.”

One of the key distinctions between these two educational access conundrums is that the Dream Act is about allocating funds for education that comes at a fee, whereas what parents across the country are “stealing” is the free education that is the right of any citizen. One of the key commonalities is whose access is in question: racial minorities without the financial resources to fund the best education for their children. While the Dream Act does not refer to any particular group of undocumented students, I don’t think there’s any confusion that when Californians picture undocumented immigrants, we see Latinos. Yes, there are undocumented Asian, African and European immigrants, but the ones we think of when we hear protests like Donnelly’s are those from Latin America. The national “educational theft” crime wave is also racially-correlated: The Post reported on an internal American Federation of Teachers’ PowerPoint presentation that “described how the AFT undermined minority parent groups’ efforts in Connecticut to pass the ‘parent trigger’ legislation that offers parents real governing authority to transform failing schools.” It would appear that the benefits Donnelly believes are the right of all documented students, are doubly out of reach for US-born racial minority students.

While both articles acknowledge social identity as a factor in the struggles to provide access to quality education to families, the issue is still often located in ideological terrain, where moral outrage trumps humanity: students are labeled “legal” or “illegal” and parents are either “verified” or “criminal.” As the battles for equitable access rage on, with competing narratives of who is taking away who else’s right to education, it’s critical to remember how race, nationality and socioeconomic status can determine people’s legal labels, and the very legitimacy of their desire to improve their own and their children’s lives.

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