One of the tropes often trotted out in immigration debates is the notion that undocumented immigrants are getting services meant for citizens without paying into the system that funds those services. While this has been proven untrue (Pew Research estimates 8 million undocumented workers and their employers paid $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010), the myth of undocumented immigrants getting a free ride in the U.S. persists.
And few forums are as ripe for this sentiment as public education. So can undocumented immigrant children attend public schools?
The quick answer is yes. All children in the country are guaranteed a right to an elementary and secondary education, regardless of immigration status. But, like many other legal guarantees, it took a Supreme Court case to get there.
In the mid-1970s, Texas passed a law that limited public school funding by the number of students that were lawfully present in the country. In order to make up for the gap in funds, school districts began charging undocumented students tuition. One in particular, Tyler, Texas, charged undocumented children $1,000 per year. Unable to pay, the students sued the school district, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Plyler v. Doe, the Court ruled that the Texas statute restricting state funds for local school districts only for children who were citizens or "legally admitted" into the United States violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, the Court noted that public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of society and sustaining our political and cultural heritage. Therefore, the deprivation of education would take an enormous toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the children involved, as well as pose an obstacle to individual achievement
Since Plyler was decided in 1982, schools could no longer bar undocumented immigrants from public K-12 education, nor could they charge them extra to attend public schools.