Commentary: The Chicago Teacher’s Strike, Public Education, and Immigrants

Public schools can give immigrant children a leg up, but it can also set them back argues Erwin de Leon. (Photo: Flickr/sierraromeo)

The outcome of the Chicago Public School Teacher’s strike which centers on teachers’ pay, evaluation, and tenure, will have serious implications for the city’s students and teachers. It also speaks to the national debate over how our children should be taught and classrooms run.

The state of our public school system heavily impacts immigrant families and their children. As the U.S. Census reports foreign-born households tend to be larger and have more children than native households. Six in ten immigrant families include children under 18 and a majority is Latino. Moreover, children of immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, accounting for nearly the entire growth in the country’s child population during the past two decades. As of 2010, one in four children in the U.S. is part of an immigrant family. In Chicago, 44 percent of Chicago public school students – over 178,000 children – is Latino. Nationwide, one-in-four public elementary school students is Latino.

We are all affected as well. The considerable demographic shift we are experiencing will have major social, political, and economic implications for the U.S. Our public school system plays a vital and indispensable role in ensuring our economic success and societal progress.

American public schools have always been integral to the full integration of immigrants. Through public schools, new Americans have been introduced to their native-born neighbors, have learned how to be responsible citizens, and have gained the education necessary to be productive members of society. A functional and successful public education system can help secure economic and social parity for immigrant children and their families by giving students a solid foundation for higher education and subsequent gainful employment. This in turn can promote intergenerational mobility for immigrant groups.

Immigrants understandably tend to place a high premium on education, counting on the investment to eventually pay off for their children. Connie Diego, whose younger brother is a fifth-grader in the Chicago public school system, told a reporter, “We couldn’t ever miss even a day because our parents tell us about all the benefits we have there and how where they came from they didn’t have anything.”

Local Activist Fernando Rayas added that many children learn English at school. Without the public schools, he said “they will fall behind.” Indeed, English proficiency is a significant barrier faced by children of immigrants. Two out of five immigrant children are English language learners and three out of four live in households where no one older than the age of thirteen speaks English proficiently.

Public schools can give immigrant children a leg up, but so can they set them back. Poorly functioning and dysfunctional public schools can widen existing economic and social gaps between racial and ethnic groups and between haves and have-nots by denying disadvantaged students the educational foundation they require to progress. In order to succeed, American students need a solid educational foundation from our schools. In order for our knowledge-based U.S. economy to succeed, we need more highly skilled and educated workers.

As public education advocates, teachers’ unions, governments, and other stakeholders duke out the future of our public school system, they ultimately need to keep the best interests and welfare of our children in mind. They also need to acknowledge however that educators need to be fairly compensated and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Our shared future is at stake.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.