Running for Texas land commissioner, Republican David Watts noted in a campaign email that a big part of the job is managing public land to generate money for public schools. To make that money go further, he said, Texas should use it only for educating children living here legally.
“Unfortunately,” Watts wrote, “the (U.S.) Supreme Court decided in 1982 (Plyler v. Doe) that non-citizen children of illegal immigrants (children born in another country and brought into the U.S. by their illegal immigrant parents) must be given a free K-12 education.”
We wondered about the details of this 30-year-old decision in a Texas case that is sometimes compared to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education anti-segregation ruling but has “none of the same fame,” as a Dallas Morning News retrospective news story said June 11, 2007.
“It is absent from Texas history lessons. … Yet the Plyler case has been used as a defense against countless proposals aiming to deny rights to illegal immigrants,” the Dallas Morning News story said, because it affirmed that a constitutional protection covered people who were illegally living in the United States.
Watts, a businessman who lives outside Longview, emailed us links to the Plyler opinion and analysis of it, plus a Dec. 5, 2010, Dallas Morning News story that used data from the Pew Hispanic Center, state government and other sources to estimate that 3 percent of Texas schoolchildren in 2009 were in the United States illegally and educating them cost the state more than $1 billion per year.
Texas’ Legislature, the Plyler opinion said, changed state education law in 1975 to let school districts refuse entry to children who weren’t legal U.S. residents and to allow the state to hold back money being sent to districts to educate such students.
Two years later, Tyler’s school district began charging $1,000 tuition per year for children without legal documentation. A class-action lawsuit naming Tyler school superintendent James Plyler went before U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice. In his 1978 ruling, Justice, already known for groundbreaking decisions in civil rights cases, agreed with the plaintiffs that Texas’ law (and Tyler’s policy) broke the 14th Amendment “equal protection” guarantee that laws in the U.S. be applied to all people in the same way.
Undocumented children, Justice found, have the same right to attend public schools in Texas as U.S. citizens. His decision was upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then, in 1982, by the U.S. Supreme Court, which extended the right nationwide.
We checked Watts’ claim against the Supreme Court’s words.
Watts specified that the ruling applied to “non-citizen children of illegal immigrants (children born in another country and brought into the U.S. by their illegal immigrant parents)” and that the Supreme Court said they “must be given a free K-12 education.”
We found that the parents’ legal status wasn’t at issue in this case, and how the children entered the country was raised in the legal debate — typically it was held that the children were not responsible for breaking immigration law because their parents made the decisions — but it also was not an essential part of the law or the court rulings.
Our ruling: Watts said the Supreme Court decided in 1982 that noncitizen children must get a free K-12 education. We rate his statement as True.
Statement: The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1982 that noncitizen children must get free K-12 education.