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Elia ponders funding for unaccompanied minors

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, speaks

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, speaks to members of the New York state Board of Regents reviewing teacher evaluations, school district ratings and state school aid during a meeting at the State Education Department in Albany on Dec.10, 2018. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

There’s a need that is increasing the difficulty of educating students in New York, including in some already challenged districts on Long Island, but directing funding to address it is circuitous at best.

The challenge is an influx of children without legal status, including unaccompanied minors from Central America, over the past five years. The barriers are both a federal law that bars schools from asking the immigration status of any child, and the reality that any attempt to quantify the enrollment of these students might lead scared parents and guardians to not enroll the children in school.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia visited the Newsday Editorial Board Friday and, as part of a broad-ranging conversation, shared that when it comes to unaccompanied minors in the state’s funding formula, “there is no way to address that issue.” Elia said that other than requesting more money for English Language Learners, as she and the Regents have done as part of their role in this year’s blossoming budget battle, there is little that can be done to address this specific problem in the budget process.

And it is a uniquely costly issue, because beyond simply not being adept in English, many unaccompanied minors may also have had little formal schooling, in any language, and may have physical and mental health needs stemming from their relocation.  

This is a huge issue on Long Island where, data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement early this year showed, Suffolk County ranks fourth in the nation in the number of minors awaiting immigration proceedings while staying with family and guardians with 5,269. Nassau ranked ninth in the nation, with 4,286.

And Elia said these children often go to districts and communities swollen with new immigrants. So to all the arguments over the education “formula” in Albany, add this. One of the most pressing needs for these districts cannot be properly quantified or properly funded, according to Elia. The increased difficulty for educators, however, is plain to see.

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