Reports are surfacing around the Valley that illegal-immigrant families with school-age children are fleeing Arizona because of a new immigration law.
Some school officials say enough parents and students have told them they plan to leave the state this summer to indicate Hispanic enrollment could drop at some schools. But there’s no way to know exactly how many illegal immigrants will depart because schools do not inquire about a student’s or a family’s legal status.
Many Latino-heavy school districts say the recession already has pushed many of their families out of state to look for work. The passage of Senate Bill 1070, which widens enforcement of immigration law, has tipped the balance for some parents who tried to stick it out.
For schools, the impact could be loss of students and, as a result, loss of state funding and parent support. The state could see savings.
Despite signs of an exodus, the picture remains murky.
Teachers and principals at Alhambra elementary schools in west Phoenix, for example, are saying goodbye to core volunteer parents, who tell them that the new migration law threatens their family stability and that they must leave. The district expects the new law to drive out an extra 200 to 300 students over the summer.
Balsz Elementary District in east Phoenix lost 70 families in the past 30 days, an unprecedented number, officials said.
In contrast, Isaac Elementary District in Phoenix, where 96 percent of its 8,058 students are Latino, lost fewer students than usual after its Christmas break, and its May enrollment grew by 20 students over last year.
At Balsz, a sense of community is fraying. Every morning for the past two years, 20 to 30 parents in orange T-shirts have gathered at designated spots to walk their children to four elementary schools.
The number of those parents, mostly Latino, began to dwindle in January after the migration bill was introduced. By spring, no one was showing up. The district’s “Walking School Bus Club” ceased to exist.
Those parents were too fearful to walk the streets, parents and school officials say. Some were busy packing for a move.
“I became their friend, and saying goodbye is never easy,” said Rosemarie Garcia, the district’s parent liaison and organizer of the walking club.
The impact debate
Driving out illegal immigrants is the stated purpose of Senate Bill 1070. Arizona’s immigration law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It states that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
There is no precise count of Arizona schoolchildren who live with families that have one or more undocumented members.
About 170,000 of Arizona’s 1 million K-12 students are children of immigrants and include both citizens and non-citizens, according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center study.
For every net decline of one student, a school loses an average of $4,404 in state money. The total amount of funding for the 170,000 children of immigrants is about $749 million, or 16 percent, of the state’s education budget.
Arizona schools Superintendent Tom Horne said he can’t predict the impact of the new law on enrollment but expects little.
A sizable loss of undocumented families could reduce crowding in some schools and allow others to combine classrooms and reduce teaching staff, said Matthew Ladner, research director for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, which has not taken a stance on the law.
“It would actually help the state’s balance sheet down the road and would lessen the burden on the general fund,” Ladner said.
School officials, however, say that if many immigrant families leave, their schools will suffer.
Losing a share of students does not yield commensurate cost savings for schools, they said. For example, losing 10 students at the third-grade level often won’t necessarily save a teacher’s salary, and the district must still pay for property maintenance.
Already hit by state budget cuts, schools that lose per-student funding may not be able to pay for manageable class sizes, reading specialists and tutoring.
“When you lose kids, you lose money,” Balsz Superintendent Jeffrey Smith said. “It gives you less to work with.”
Smith said the only way his district could save money would be to crowd students into four schools and shut down the district’s fifth campus.
“It would make us more cost-effective and it would cost less to run them. But I hope that doesn’t happen,” Smith said.
Another impact is a loss of a sense of community.
Smith talked about the issue while sitting in Brunson-Lee Elementary, which has 435 students.
“This is a walking school,” he said. “If this school ever goes down, all these kids would have to be bused farther away.
“So, the parents would be less likely to get to the school to support the school.”
What schools say
Although the last day of school is usually joyful, this year, some schools fear what may happen this summer.
Worry has spread through the sprawling, 14,538-student Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix, which has lost about 2.5 percent, or about 363 students, a year since 2008. That’s when a new law took effect that made it more difficult for employers to hire undocumented workers and the recession began ripping away jobs in earnest.
Latino students make up 75 percent of Alhambra’s enrollment. Before SB 1070 became law, families in which one parent was legal could still survive. But jobs remain tight, and now, any undocumented family member can be deported after getting a traffic ticket.
Volunteers are dwindling, and fewer parents are showing up for parent coaching and teacher meetings, Alhambra Superintendent Jim Rice said. This summer, the district expects to lose twice as many students, Rice added.
“Our children have been here since they were 1 year old or 2 years old, and they are ready to go to high school,” he said. “That’s what makes it tough.”
Other districts are not sure what to expect when school resumes in August.
• Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest unified district, has 67,749 students, and Latino students make up 37.5 percent. It anticipates a decrease of 1,500 students, similar to losses over the past four years. It blames a combination of new immigration laws, including SB 1070, and the recession.
• Paradise Valley Unified District in Phoenix, where nearly a quarter of its 33,431 students are Latino, hasn’t seen a large drop in total enrollment.
“A lot of our students go to Mexico for the summer, and we’re speculating they may not come back,” spokeswoman Judi Willis said. “But we don’t know.”
• Enrollment at Glendale Union High School District, where about half of its 14,940 students are Latino, has held steady, but the number of students signing up for English-language summer school has fallen. High-school districts are less likely to feel the loss because older kids are more likely to stay behind with friends and relatives, said Craig Pletenik, spokesman for Phoenix Union High School, where more than three-fourths of the district’s 25,083 students are Latino. “Our kids are older, and closer to the educational finish line.” The district hasn’t seen a dip in enrollment.
• Teachers at Deer Valley Unified District report that high-school students worry about the new law because their parents are talking about a possible family move. The district lost 200 students two years ago, mainly because of the employer-sanctions law, spokeswoman Sandi Hicks said.
For now, there is no sign of a big change, Hicks said. “They’re in school. They haven’t left yet.” About 15 percent of Deer Valley’s 36,498 students are Latino.
• At Isaac Elementary, district spokesman Abedón Fimbres said the district’s enrollment declined for several years, then leveled off and grew slightly this year. He said that because the district has the lowest-cost housing of central-city districts, families have fled to its neighborhoods as they lost jobs and income.
Claudia Suriano is sitting with four fellow school volunteers at Brunson-Lee Elementary in Phoenix’s Balsz district. She is among three who are leaving the state. Two others say their families are still debating.
Suriano is a Phoenix mother of two whose husband just quit a good job as a roofer after five years.
While he has survived atop Valley houses for five summers, he could not stand the heat of the new immigration law.
“He feels so stressed that he’s not a citizen. He feels it’s going to catch up to him,” said Suriano, 27, who also is undocumented. “He speaks excellent English, but he feels a pressure they’re going to find out what his status is here, and it’s too great a weight for him.”
Suriano’s husband has been in New Mexico for two weeks, looking for an apartment and a job. She is packing up their Phoenix apartment. “He tells me over in New Mexico, it is like here when we first came: There is no fear and they treat you like human beings.”
She tries to explain to her two children, one of whom is not a citizen, why the family must leave after six years.
“They’re just innocent children,” she said. “The older one – he’s 9 – says, ‘Mommy, I have my friends here and my school.’ They don’t understand what in the world is going on.”
Reporter Ronald J. Hansen contributed to this article.