In his campaign last summer to represent Arizona’s predominantly Hispanic 16th Legislative District, freshman Democrat Ruben Gallego spent a significant portion of his time talking to parents and meeting with school officials. The No. 1 concern he heard from parents, he says, was the effect of SB1070.
“I heard, over and over, ‘What are we going to do about our kids?’” he says.
Months later, the latest enrollment figures compiled by Arizona public school districts paint a murky picture as to whether the law, often referred to as the nation’s toughest on illegal immigration, has had a measurable effect on enrollments.
While some of the state’s largest public school districts continue to show an overall decline in the number of students, part of a statewide trend that began in 2007, officials in those districts can’t say for sure that concerns related to SB1070 were contributing factors.
“We aren’t seeing more kids coming in to replace the ones who are leaving,” says David Scott, director of accountability and research at Tucson Unified School District.
When looking for reasons behind the enrollment lag, Scott and other school officials point to the poor economy, including difficulty families face in bouncing back from foreclosures and job losses.
“People are coming and going, and when times are unstable, there is more of it happening,” says Craig Pletenik, a spokesman for Phoenix Union High School District.
Phoenix Union has the state’s largest portion of Hispanic students, more than 78 percent. The district saw a decline this school year of more than 200 Hispanic students from last year.
Pletenik says Phoenix Union expects an overall dip in enrollment of around 600 students in each of the next two years. He has also seen a drop of more than 10,000 students since 2007 from the 13 elementary school districts that provide some of their students to Phoenix Union. But he was hesitant to tie student attrition rates to fear over changes in illegal immigration laws.
“It’s dangerous, or at least faulty, to suggest SB1070 is the only reason, because the problem doesn’t have a simple answer,” Pletenik says.
Scott adds that Tucson Unified, the second largest district in the state, experienced an attrition rate around 3 percent for the last few years, so a slight drop is expected in the district’s mid-year student counts.
“It means our enrollment will continue to decline,” he says.
Scott says any attempt to measure declines in the number of Hispanic students is muddled by recent changes in the way districts report the racial and ethnic makeup of enrollments. The changes were made to bring about consistency with the demographic categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies.
Officials who track school district enrollments say more parents are taking their children out of school or leaving the state than in previous years, but they don’t see reaction to the anti-immigration law since it was passed by lawmakers in April as a clear cause of the migration.
“It’s hard to disentangle the economy from 1070,” says Joe O’Reilly, director of research at Mesa Unified School District, Arizona’s largest. “People are leaving because they can’t find jobs here.”
O’Reilly theorizes SB1070 could have affected enrollment figures in Mesa Unified, but it is impossible to tell for sure. The district had expected enrollment figures taken at the start of the school year to show a larger reduction in Hispanic students. Instead, he said, the annual 2 percent growth in the Hispanic enrollment rate his district had for several years leveled off.
The numbers at Arizona charter schools have also declined in the last few years. One in ten public school students attends a charter school, according to the Arizona Charter School Association.
The debate over the long-term effects of the law may continue, but some officials see it as little more than a distraction from other issues facing educators.
“It’s difficult to say why people are leaving,” Scott says, “but when you get hit by a tidal wave, as we have with this economy, SB1070 may be the small ripple behind it all.”