Understanding Plyler's Legacy: Voices from Border Schools
Journal of Law & Education, Vol. 37, No. 15, 2008
69 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2009
Date Written: February 10, 2009
In 1982, the Supreme Court held in Plyer v. Doe that undocumented immigrant students have a right under the Equal Protection Clause to a free public education. In an effort to take stock of the case's impact at the classroom and community levels, this article analyzes the results of surveys and interviews about Plyler with over 150 school personnel in six public schools in Southern Arizona. The authors draw several conclusions about Plyler's complex legacy and future viability from the data collected. First, despite the case's lasting power, its goal of ridding public school classrooms of distinctions based on legal status remains incomplete. Undocumented students remain vulnerable to subtle but pervasive discrimination in school, particularly on the basis of their language abilities. The research also demonstrates how Plyler's equalizing goal is limited at a more fundamental level by the precarious status of undocumented students once they move outside the temporal and geographic bounds of primary and secondary education. The authors suggest policy reforms to address these obstacles to Plyler's successful implementation in schools.
At the same time, the research demonstrates the affirmative benefits of Plyler and the likely consequences that would follow from its reversal. Specifically, the data capture significant benefits to teachers, lawfully present students, and immigrant communities that are often left out of discussions of the case's impact. Of particular note, the majority of school personnel who participated in the study strongly support the legal regime established in Plyler. They raised important and often unacknowledged concerns about the impact a reversal of the case would have on their professional morale and the quality of education in their schools. Their insights add an important dimension to discussions about the future of Plyler.
Keywords: Plyer, immigrants, education, undocumented immigrants, schools, free public education
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