SPLC praises Alabama school superintendent’s effort to prevent exclusion of immigrant students

The SPLC praised Alabama’s top public school official for taking action today to ensure students are not blocked or discouraged from enrolling because they lack a Social Security number, a U.S. birth certificate or a parent with a state driver’s license. 

In a memo to local school superintendents, Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice noted that schools should always enroll a child and should accept a wide variety of documents as proof of a child’s age and residency in the district.

The action comes after the SPLC found in April that many schools fail to comply with state and federal laws when they request Social Security numbers for enrollment – potentially chilling enrollment by the children of immigrants. The SPLC urged Bice to address the matter.

“As a new school year draws near, it’s important that no child is singled out or excluded from school,” said SPLC staff attorney Caren Short. “We are delighted that Superintendent Bice has provided these guidelines to ensure that every child will have an opportunity to attend school this fall.”

Bice reminded school superintendents in the memo that “schools should make clear” that providing a child’s Social Security number is voluntary and said schools should enroll children even if “there is a question about the sufficiency of documentation provided.” He also said that a parent’s or guardian’s Social Security number should not be required to enroll a child. Bice noted that the enrollment guidelines in the memo should be posted on school and school system websites as well as other documents. 

“With the start of the new school year fast approaching, we need assistance in assuring that all children in Alabama have access to a quality education regardless of their race, ethnicity, birthplace, or the birthplace of their parents,” Bice wrote. He added: “No child is to be denied enrollment in any school or participation in school activities and programs based on the immigration status of the child or the child’s parents/guardians.”

In April, the SPLC found that of a sample of 124 enrollment forms representing 81 Alabama school districts, no district complied with the legal requirements for requesting Social Security numbers. The findings came more than a year after a federal court blocked a provision of the state’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56, requiring schools to determine the immigration status of enrolling students.

More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education based on his or her immigration status. To ensure that enrollment in public school is not chilled, federal law requires that schools requesting a Social Security number must: (1) indicate that disclosing the number is voluntary; (2) provide the statutory or other basis upon which it is seeking the number; and (3) explain how the number will be used.  

The guidelines provided by Bice today also said that under no circumstances should schools deny a child’s enrollment because a parent cannot produce an Alabama driver’s license or ID to prove residency. The memo urges school systems to be flexible in the documentation it accepts to establish residency, such as a utility bill or lease. Flexibility is also urged for documentation proving age, such as a baptismal certificate, family Bible entry or an affidavit from a parent as proof of age.

Latino student absences more than tripled after the passage of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56, which required schools to determine the immigration status of enrolling students, according to a May 2012 Department of Justice letter to the Alabama Department of Education. The DOJ letter noted that even after the school section of the law was blocked by the courts, its chilling effect continued to diminish access to and quality of education for many of Alabama’s Latino children.