Andrea couldn't believe it when her cousin, a U.S. citizen, dropped out of high school.
"I told her so many times, 'Don't quit,' " said Andrea, a Salt Lake City high school student whom The Tribune agreed not to identify because she is not a U.S. citizen. " 'Are you serious? You have a better opportunity than me and you're going to give up?' "
Andrea, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, doesn't take her education here for granted. She wants to "be someone" and knows an education is the way to do that.
But as the immigration debate in Utah heats up, a number of Utahns find themselves wondering whether paying to educate Andrea and other students like her is taxing the public school system to the point that the children of legal residents suffer.
It's a question that doesn't seem to have an easy answer, though schools must educate students regardless of their legal statuses, per a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 8 percent of Utah students in kindergarten through 12th grade had an undocumented parent in 2009 a figure higher than the national average of about 6.2 percent. And a 2007 legislative audit estimated that it cost Utah between $55 million and $85 million in fiscal year 2006 to educate just undocumented students.
In July of 2007, members of the Education Interim Committee voted to send a letter, along with the audit, to the federal government asking it to reimburse Utah for those students.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said at the time, "We as a state are asked to absorb large numbers of costs that result from failed federal immigration policy."
Cherilyn Eagar, a member of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said population growth is important, but bringing immigrants here illegally carries a steep cost.
"If you isolate the cost of illegal immigrant children in the classroom we could have forgone taking that [federal] money," said Eagar, referring to $101 million Utah recently accepted to help schools.
But others say it's not enough to look just at the cost of educating children of undocumented immigrants. Some, for example, criticized the 2007 audit for not including estimates of money paid into the state by such immigrants.
Utah schools are funded mostly through income tax, which undocumented immigrants generally don't pay unless they have a Social Security number. But about 30 percent of total education funding comes from property tax, which undocumented immigrants pay if they own homes or may help pay indirectly through rent. Some education funding also comes from the federal government and other local sources.
As to the question of whether undocumented immigrants pay enough into the school system to support the costs of their children's educations, Jeff Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, said it's his sense that parents, as a whole group, generally don't pay enough to cover those costs. The population as a whole, not just parents, pays to educate children. Yet he said the question of whether parents are paying enough into the school system for their own kids tends to be directed at undocumented immigrants.
"We don't ask that for other kids," Passel said.
Also, Utah would likely still have the lowest base per-pupil spending and highest student-to-teacher ratios in the nation even without children of undocumented immigrants.
About 8 percent of Utah's students are likely children of undocumented immigrants, but Utah's per pupil spending was about 17 percent lower than the next lowest state in 2007-08, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. And Utah's student-to-teacher ratio was about 26 percent higher than the next highest state in 2008-09, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"They could all leave and the rankings would remain," said Pamela Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah.
It's true that children of undocumented immigrants sometimes need additional educational programs, such as those that help them learn English and assist children of low-income families. But such programs don't just serve children of undocumented immigrants. They also serve refugees and children with long roots in this country.
"There are plenty of collective resources to help every child in the education system, and some require more resources than others but not extraordinary amounts of resources," Perlich said.
Jose Enriquez, an assistant principal at Mountain View High School in Orem, said he sees the potential of such students. Enriquez started a program called Latinos in Action about 10 years ago, in which Latino students, regardless of citizenship, focus on leadership, service learning and literacy. The program is now in 37 Utah schools and has about 1,600 student members. Each student is expected to complete 100 hours of community service a year.
"When people say they're holding down our system it seems to me like they just don't get it," Enriquez said. "People just don't understand really how productive these kids are and can be."
Immigration fact check
The claim • The needs of children of undocumented workers tax the public school system to the point where the children of legal residents suffer.
The reality • The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 8 percent of Utah students in kindergarten through 12th grade had an undocumented parent in 2009 a figure higher than the national average of about 6.2 percent. A 2007 legislative audit put the cost to Utah of educating undocumented children at $55 million to $85 million, although critics said the audit didn't account for money paid into the state by such children's parents. Also, Utah would likely still be last in per-pupil funding and have the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation even without children of undocumented workers in the system.
About the series
In coming months, Utah lawmakers intent on immigration reform will argue their case based sometimes on facts and sometimes on assumptions. In a series that concludes today, The Tribune examines whether common claims made about undocumented workers match reality.
Online • Read previous stories at http://www.sltrib.com.