Twenty school districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties were put on notice recently by the American Civil Liberties Union that their enrollment policies violate state and federal law.
These districts - 11 in Atlantic County, two in Cape May County, two in Cumberland County and five in Ocean County - require parents to provide a driver's license or other official identification in order to enroll their children. District policies that require such identification are discriminatory, because they can discourage undocumented immigrant families from enrolling their children in school.
The ACLU has litigated this issue with other districts in the past, but senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom says a letter was sent to the local districts - among 138 districts statewide that engage in this practice - in the hope that school boards would revise their policies once they were made aware of the problem. Many of the district officials contacted by Press staff writer Diane D'Amico said they had been unaware of the issue.
For most of us, being asked to present our driver's license as a form of identification is no big deal. But for families without official documents, such a request can be chilling. And public schools should never be the front line of the immigration debate.
There are other ways for districts to check for residency, including leases or utility bills.
Whatever you think of national immigration policy, no one benefits from having children excluded from schools. That's why both federal and state law requires that public K-12 schools be open to everyone, and why the Department of Education sends districts a letter each year, reminding them that any inquiries that expose immigration status or hinder access to public schools are prohibited.
We hope that area school districts have simply made an honest mistake and that no officials would actually be trying to keep the children of undocumented residents out of their schools.
In a similar case in 2008, the ACLU was able to get 139 districts to stop the practice of asking enrolling families for Social Security numbers or other proof of citizenship.
If this is just an oversight, it's an easy one to correct. As Shalom pointed out, the great majority of districts in the state routinely enroll students without asking parents for official identification. There's no reason the offending districts cannot quickly change their policies and make sure their schools are open to all residents.