The state attorney general's office and state Education Department are teaming up to review school districts' enrollment procedures for immigrant students, citing their constitutional right to an education.
The effort will begin with Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester counties, which have the largest numbers in New York of unaccompanied minors and youths living here illegally, officials said Thursday.
More than 2,600 children who entered the United States illegally, many fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, were released to relatives and sponsors in Nassau and Suffolk counties from Jan. 1 through Sept. 31, according to federal statistics. The number is the highest in the tristate area and ranks near the top nationally.
Districts have until Nov. 13 to give the attorney general's office the number of unaccompanied minors who sought to enter their schools, the number of students who were denied enrollment between June 1 and Oct. 22, and the average time frame that children had to wait to attend classes, among other data.
"Access to public education is an essential, constitutionally protected right, and we must do everything we can to ensure our public schools are including everyone, regardless of immigration status," Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. "This review is a crucial step in that effort."
The Education Department promised "strong and swift action" against schools whose enrollment procedures do not meet the law, but officials also acknowledged the districts face a fiscal dilemma.
"Our school districts are under enormous financial stress," said Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, who Thursday visited classrooms serving immigrant students in Hempstead and Roosevelt. "All these kids need help."
Tisch and Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), who accompanied her, said the state has not compiled figures on the extra costs of bilingual instruction and other services needed by the new arrivals.
The Hempstead school district has been the epicenter of activism on the issue.
Advocates said last week that at least 34 Hispanic students had been turned away since the school year started Sept. 3.
More than 50 students -- many recent immigrants among them -- attended their first day of school Wednesday at a hastily arranged "transition school" that is about a mile from the middle and high schools.
Diane Goins, 71, a local activist who helped put the spotlight on Hempstead, told immigrant mothers before a recent demonstration that she, as a black girl, faced rejection from schools and fought for her rights.
"I am so glad they heard us because those kids need help," Goins, Long Island director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change, said Thursday. "It's just history repeating itself, and if Martin Luther King was alive, oh my God, he would be on the front lines with these kids."
An Education Department spokesman said this is believed to be the first time the agency has conducted such an enrollment probe and has paired with the attorney general's office on the issue.
Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston who specializes in issues of immigrants' education access, said the 1982 Plyler v. Doe case, which originated in Texas and reached the U.S. Supreme Court, clearly affirmed the children's right to public education regardless of status.
"If those kids are residing in a district with their parents, they not only get to go to school, they have to go to school," Olivas said. "Federal law does not allow them to single these kids out for additional responsibility or burdens of proof, or means of identification."