This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of Plyler vs. Doe, a watershed decision by the Supreme Court that changed the course of education in the United States. The case arose out of a Texas law that withheld funds to educate kids who were not “legally admitted” into the United States. As a result, public school districts were being allowed to deny enrollment to certain students, or in some cases charge a special tuition rate based on immigration status. Not surprisingly, the result was that poor, Latino, and non-English-speaking students were driven from the classroom.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court stepped in, striking down the law in 1982 as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Citing Brown v. Board of Education, the Court held that “denying these children a basic education” would “deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”
In the last three decades, the Court’s decision in Plyler has proven to be quite significant. For starters, its recognition that due process and equal protection apply to everyone in America has become a central principle in efforts to combat anti-immigrant, racial profiling laws that discriminate so brutally against Latino and immigrant communities. In addition, Plyler has set the stage for many of today’s other battles over higher education, as immigrant youth fight to defend their ability to enroll in colleges and university, access in-state tuition and scholarships and financial aid, and secure passage of the DREAM Act’s path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the United States as children and graduate from high school.
Certainly Plyler has helped in these struggles for equal access to education, but unfortunately it has too often failed to be enough. As documented by the ACLU, schools in New York, New Jersey, Arizona, and elsewhere still routinely inquire into immigration status in the school enrollment process. Alabama’s anti-immigrant law goes even further, requiring public schools to determine the immigration status of children and many parents, and authorizing schools to report them to the immigration authorities. As a result, absentee rates for Hispanic students have increased significantly, and 13.4 percent of Hispanic children are withdrawing from Alabama public schools altogether.

Plyler made it abundantly clear that the Constitution guarantees all children equal access to a basic public education, regardless of immigration status. We cannot lose sight of that principle, even though it is clear from recent events that its promise has yet to be fully achieved.