Taxpayers have a right to know how many illegal immigrant students are in public schools - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Commentary

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Taxpayers have a right to know how many illegal immigrant students are in public schools

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Posted: Monday, July 20, 2009 11:00 pm

I authored Senate Bill 1172 to require all Arizona school districts to count and report yearly their illegal alien students and seven legislators joined as co-sponsors. I was sorry to read Beth Lyon’s July 10 letter (“Federal law doesn’t ask student’s immigration status”) that centered on non-issues and personal attacks rather than the bill’s provisions and true intent; the cost – one billion dollars or more? Why would Beth be afraid to let the taxpayer know the real cost?

Such letters do damage beyond just adding insults and ill will to what should be a discussion of facts; Arizona taxpayers also lose an opportunity. It’s appalling that the author’s attacks are based on what she “guesses.” Ironically, it’s those who call for “civil dialog free of personal attacks” who mount attacks on others.

As the bill’s author, I’d like to emphasize what are the issues and more importantly, what ARE NOT.

It is not about excluding students from school, students’ English fluency or their skin color.

It is about holding a school board accountable for its past track record, written and published in a newspaper. The track record consistently shows passing up the chance to seek federal reimbursement for school costs of illegal aliens that fall heavily on border-state taxpayers.

School boards have long excused refusing to count and report numbers of illegal alien students by reciting a myth that “federal law prohibits a school from asking a student’s immigration status.” I did extensive research on this question before submitting SB1172. There is no such federal law! Even the U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the 1982 Plyler v. Doe case doesn’t forbid asking. The mantra is just plain false.

By misleading citizens with a false “federal law,” elected school board members robbed taxpayers of the chance to pursue federal reimbursement or understand the real impact. Some may not care. After all, schools are paid based on the number of students no matter where they come from. 

We already have programs like SCAAP in place that recover federal money for Arizona’s costs to jail illegal aliens, as well as the unpaid medical care that EMTALA requires we provide regardless of immigration status. While we don’t collect 100 percent of the expense, it’s better for Arizona taxpayers than no reimbursement at all.

SB1172 would be a first step to add education costs to recovered federal dollars. But school officials refuse to collect the specific numbers required by such programs. Those same school boards then tell taxpayers they can’t recover the money because “there are no accurate numbers.”

Elected school board officials are obligated to serve the interests of all citizens, not just students and school district employees. But they turn their backs on Arizona taxpayers by following the easier (for them) choice of raising taxes rather than risk being politically incorrect.

When school boards unilaterally decided to forfeit the opportunity to keep more of our own money, they did a disservice to Arizona taxpayers.

School boards seem determined to continue evading the issue. Their “federal law” has been exposed as false, yet they don’t want to serve taxpayers’ interests by seeking money in new places. They want to throw in the towel because they’re sure it will fail, but they can’t be sure without trying. Arizona’s taxpayers deserve that from the school board members they elect. And taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent.

The governor’s extended budget objections prevented SB1172 from completing the process before adjournment.

But it will be re-introduced next session, and I urge school boards to cooperate: identify your “federal law” so it can be investigated and concerns resolved, or admit that it was a non-issue from the start. Fish or cut bait.

Taxpayers have a right to know.


Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) is a retired Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy and longtime lawmaker. He can be reached at

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