An analysis of school enrollment figures show that the two cities that lashed out at illegal immigrants had some of the largest increases in poor, Hispanic and limited English students

May 15, 2009

2 cities saw big rise in Hispanic enrollments
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Before their crackdowns against illegal immigrants, Farmers Branch and Irving experienced large demographic shifts, school enrollment figures show.

The North Texas cities at the epicenter of the local debate about illegal immigration are also home to school districts that in recent years have seen some of the state’s sharpest growth of Hispanic students, according to a Star-Telegram analysis of school data.

Experts who have tracked the vitriolic debates in Irving and Farmers Branch say the enrollment shifts may help explain the tough immigration measures sought by some in these cities.

“Very rapid change seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable,” said Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “You could portray it as racism or xenophobia or fear of the other. But you could also say that people like stability in their lives, and they’re willing to accept gradual change but not rapid change.”

The Star-Telegram analysis looked at proportional change. For example, the Irving school district is near the top of the list of greatest proportional increases in Hispanic students because the Hispanic portion of its student body jumped from 33 percent in the 1995-96 school year to 63 percent by 2005-06.

The Irving and Carrollton-Farmers Branch school districts are in the top 5 percent statewide for the greatest proportional increases in Hispanic students from 1995-96 to 2005-06. They are also in the top 30 — out of more than 560 districts analyzed — for greatest percentage-point increases in poor children and in students with limited English proficiency, according to the analysis of data from the Texas Education Agency. Opponents of illegal immigration argue that most illegal immigrants are poor and are bringing the social problems of poverty to America’s cities.

The Irving and Carrollton-Farmers Branch districts, which lie mostly in Dallas County, saw surges in the numbers of Hispanic and limited-English students in the late 1990s, when, economists believe, illegal border crossings peaked.

Tarrant County districts such as Castleberry and Everman have also seen substantial proportional increases in Hispanic enrollment. But while Everman Mayor Jim Stephenson cringes at people coming before the City Council with translators, no Tarrant County city has adopted measures meant to discourage illegal immigrants from living there.

In January, the Farmers Branch City Council approved an ordinance banning illegal immigrants from renting apartments or houses. In Irving, police screen everyone booked into its jail and refers suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities, causing thousands to be deported.

‘Kids that haven’t been in school for three years’

Irving Superintendent Jack Singley said it’s difficult to bring so many students up to Texas’ standards.

Mexican government statistics show that only 58 percent of Mexicans 15 and older have some elementary school education. Working with students who come from such a background often requires slowing down and teaching the basics — the very basics, the language itself.

“We get kids that haven’t been in school for three years, and they usually come from Mexico, by the way, or El Salvador,” Singley said. “Just think about getting a horde of these people in here, and you’re supposed to educate them.”

Many school districts offer English classes to parents so they can help their children with schoolwork. Teachers certified in bilingual education are in such demand that districts pay them annual stipends of up to $4,000.

The Castleberry district requires all elementary and middle school teachers to be certified in teaching English as a second language.

Irving school officials recently returned from a recruiting trip in Puerto Rico in search of more bilingual teachers.

At Vivian Field Middle School in Farmers Branch, Bettie Rivers’ English as a second language classroom is decorated with both Star Wars posters and prints of Diego Rivera’s paintings — one of many examples of two cultures mixing.

Rivers spoke to her students in English, and they often answered her in Spanish.

They went through a list of vocabulary words, struggling with the pronunciation of toast and difference.

“OK, wait. Number four again,” she said to one student.

The student looked at her slightly puzzled and responded, “¿Numero cuatro?”

The students, all of them Hispanic, have been in the U.S. for a year or so.

Next door, Sarah Sandle’s students have been in the U.S. for two years or more. Accents from Mexico and Central America were still noticeable, but the students showed more skill in pronouncing long English words.

Schools and city councils

While city officials can draft ordinances to address their concerns about illegal immigration, a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires public schools to educate all children, regardless of immigration status.

State and federal accountability requirements pressure schools to improve the performance of all students.

“Although we do it by the law, we do it because philosophically we think it’s the right thing to do,” said Charles Cole, assistant superintendent at Carrollton-Farmers Branch.

But in the Farmers Branch city government, some have cited the burden on schools as a reason to crack down on illegal immigrants. At a recent City Council meeting, Councilman David Koch said that was partly why he was voting for the latest version of the rental ban.

“If you don’t think it’s costing every citizen, just stop and think that in the average year it cost approximately $10,000 to educate a student. If there are 100 illegal-immigrant students in this school district in Farmers Branch, that’s over $1 million a year. That’s if it’s just 100” students, he said.

Actually, it costs the Carrollton-Farmers Branch district $5,196 per student, but economist James Smith says Koch is on the right track.

Smith, with the RAND Corp., a California think tank, said illegal immigration’s impact on schools — not on hospitals or welfare — is what costs taxpayers so much. He said illegal immigrants are a financial burden on schools because they usually have more children than other families but typically are too poor to pay much in the property taxes that fund schools.

In addition to the greater number of children, there are extra expenses for educating illegal-immigrant students. For example, the stipends Irving pays to bilingual teachers add up to about $1.5 million annually. It’s a significant sum, but it’s only a fraction of the $215 million budget.

“I’m not going to say that that $1.5 million is not a lot of money. It is,” Assistant Superintendent Neil Dugger said. “But it is also the price of doing business.”

Opponents of illegal immigration sometimes focus on the results — or test scores — and find fault that they attribute to illegal immigrants.

Among those with that view is Tim O’Hare, the Farmers Branch councilman who champions his city’s stance against illegal immigration.

He said the schools would do better without illegal immigrants, and he pointed to the district’s state rating, which dropped last year from recognized to acceptable because of low science scores among Hispanic students.

“Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that if you took the illegal immigrants out that everyone would pass?” he said.

He said the enrollment shifts revealed in the Star-Telegram analysis provide justification for pushing illegal immigrants out of Farmers Branch.

“If the city didn’t step up and do something, this trend was going to continue to potentially the point of no return,” O’Hare said.

‘White flight’ affecting students and teachers

Uri Treisman, director of the Charles Dana Center, an education research center at the University of Texas at Austin, said that many school districts overassign less-challenging schoolwork to immigrant and minority students and that eventually this takes over the culture of the school.

He said good teachers can become part of “white flight” from the schools.

The Star-Telegram analysis found evidence of Anglos moving away from Hispanic students.

Every percentage-point increase in a Texas school district’s Hispanic students corresponded to a percentage-point decrease in Anglo students.

The arrival of Hispanic students did not parallel any change, however, in the African-American makeup of the student body.

The loss of good teachers does appear to be happening in the Irving and Carrollton-Farmers Branch districts.

Texas Education Agency figures show that in both districts, the percentages of teachers with master’s degrees and multiple years of experience have dropped in the last 10 years.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch Superintendent Annette Griffin said she doesn’t want teachers who don’t want to work with the district’s changing population.

She said she and her staff are committed to getting results with whatever students they have.

A family of illegal immigrants living in Irving said they have benefited from such commitment from the schools.

This, along with a good job market, makes them want to endure the anti-illegal- immigrant measures and stay here.

They spoke on the condition that their last name not be used.

Gabriella, 35, said she took some of the English classes that Irving schools offered adults and said she’s glad that her children can speak English fluently.

She said that they could use their new language in the tourist industry in Mexico if they ever get deported — but that the jobs, schools and opportunity make them want to stay here.

“What we are looking for is a better future for our children,” Gabriella said. “We do not have any plans to return to Mexico.”



Notes on the numbers

The numbers provided to the Star-Telegram from the Texas Education Agency vary slightly from numbers that may be found on the TEA Web site.

School districts with fewer than 100 Hispanic students were not included in the analysis to avoid skewing the numbers with proportional changes that are large but represent too few students to signify meaningful change.

The numbers represent the changes for one decade, ending with the 2005-06 school year. These were the populations of Farmers Branch and Irving when the cities decided to take strong actions against illegal immigration.

School districts’ boundaries do not always coincide with cities’, but unlike U.S. Census Bureau figures, their enrollment figures offer year-to-year comparisons because they are updated annually.