The Costs of Educating Immigrants

By Lawrence Hardy

Thirteen different languages are spoken by students in the Storm Lake Community Schools. That might not sound like a lot until you consider that this rural district in central Iowa has just over 2,300 students.

Hispanics make up nearly a third of these students, and the district has significant numbers of Hmong and Laotian students as well. In all, 77 percent of Storm Lake’s students are minorities, nearly three-quarters qualify for federally subsidized lunches, and almost half are English language learners.

Superintendent Carl Turner is proud of that inclusive atmosphere as well as of the district’s intensive efforts to teach English to new arrivals. He says this diversity “is good for our kids, because that is what the world is like.” And, on the financial side, he knows that all those immigrants are a lifeline of sorts in a state with more than 370 mostly small, rural districts, two-thirds of which are declining in population.

“Most districts in Iowa are losing kids,” Turner says. “The exceptions are if you’re in a metropolitan area like Des Moines, or you have diversity. So we’re very fortunate to have the number of English language learner students we have, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to provide other things to students.”

How much does it cost to educate immigrant students, both legal and undocumented? And what are the short- and long-term benefits of those efforts? These questions are both tremendously complex and politically charged.

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