Instead of Separating Families by Building Walls, Invest in Schools

Jeff Bryant

Nearly every cause at the center of the progressive movement has its roots, at least in part, at the schoolhouse door. That’s at least part of the message behind the “Build Schools, Not Walls” campaign that kicked off this week in unison with the massive May 1st actions for worker and immigrant rights that took place Monday.

This effort to join the fight for education justice with worker and immigrant rights is being led by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, an alliance of parent, youth, community, and labor organizations from across the country representing over 7 million people.

“Schools are the institutions that bring us together,” AROS Executive Director Keron Blair tells me in a phone call. “We can’t stay in these silos.”

“Public schools are the foundation of opportunity for children,” states Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, an organization aligned with AROS. In her emailed statement, she calls public schools “the bedrock of our democracy and community.”

The most obvious intersection of education justice with the rights of immigrants is in resistance to President Trump’s immigration policies targeting these families with travel restrictions, forced deportations, and demeaning rhetoric.

“Instilling Fear In School Kids”

In a letter to Congressional leaders explaining their campaign, AROS decries the “constant fear and insecurity caused by the President’s targeting of Muslims, refugees, and undocumented immigrants.”

“The Trump administration is instilling fear in school kids,” Blair tells me. “Fear is becoming part of the education experience of schools. Fear shows up in classrooms and affects education. This isn’t theory. It’s fact.”

Blair tells me of his recent visit to a school in Dearborn, Michigan, which has seen a wave of immigrant families from countries where Islam is the major religion. Educators in these schools described to him how the Trump Administration’s ban on travel from parts of the Muslim world adversely affected their students’ ability to learn. The bans were overturned by federal courts, but the feelings of fear among the children have not subsided.

In California, where one in every eight students has at least one parent who is undocumented, anxieties stemming from the Trump administration’s fear campaign in schools have reached new heights, according to a report from state news outlet EdSource. These fears have “consequences on [students’] ability to focus on school work, the willingness of parents to attend school events, or even to bring their children to school.”

“The Trump administration’s approach to immigration enforcement has leaned heavily on a combination of bellicose language and hardline directives effective at driving intense fear into immigrant communities,” writes Ryan Devereaux for The Intercept. “Arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record have more than doubled,” and the target for deportation appears to have switched from convicted felons to families.

Funding The Wrong Priorities

While “schools and communities are being permeated with fear,” the AROS letter continues, “Trump is proposing to build a 1,200-mile wall along the Mexican border – a boondoggle project that is unsupported by fact and preposterous in its grandiosity. The Department of Homeland Security has projected that the wall would cost $21.6 billion. A new report released last week puts that figure at nearly $70 billion.”

The massive outlay for a border wall comes at the same time Trump has called for cutting funds to the Department of Education by 13 percent – taking that department’s resources down to the level it was ten years ago. The budget cuts are aimed principally at federal programs that serve poor kids, especially their access to afterschool programs and high-quality teachers.

“The cuts being proposed by President Trump will drive a stake through the heart of public education,” says Weingarten. “We need to invest in [schools], not defund and destabilize them.”

What AROS proposes in its campaign is to take the money proposed by the Trump administration to increase deportations and build the border wall and invest that money in schools instead.

“Instead of separating families and building walls, we must invest in our schools as part of our nation’s infrastructure,” AROS states in its letter to Congressional leaders.

“Schools in many places don’t have the resources they need,” Blair contends, especially supports such as counselors, nurses, and other personnel that are critical to helping students traumatized by fear, poverty, and family separations.

The lack of resources to support immigrant and undocumented children in California is acute. According to the EdSource story cited above, while the state provides a “wide range of supports for undocumented students” who attend or are planning to attend college, “there are far fewer formal supports for undocumented children attending preK-12 public schools, or for U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents.”

“We know from evidence that when we invest in quality schools now,” Blair argues, that investment “pays off in the future by preventing problems” – related to health, crime, unemployment, and other life outcomes – that “come back on taxpayers.”

Schools And Justice

In addition to wanting to see more investments made in schools, Blair also wants to see investments devoted to programs and practices that are directly beneficial to students, including restorative justice programs for handling student discipline problems, instead of using harsh punishments and school police officers, and community schools that attend to the whole range of children’s needs – academic, health, developmental, and social-emotional.

He sees the interest in aligning quality education with worker and immigrant rights as an opportunity to demonstrate the widespread commitment to public schools as engines for justice. His hope is that energy and solidarity resulting from the May Day protests can drive long term goals for higher quality education for all children, especially those in the most underserved communities.

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