Public schooling for immigrants’ kids — why’s it a problem?

One of the common complaints of critics of migration is the welfare state/fiscal burden objection, or more specifically, the observation that migrants impose a net fiscal burden on the receiving countries. In many countries, such as the United States, migrants’ access to means-tested social safety nets is restricted, and it could in principle be restricted further. Perhaps for this reason, one of the main items that contributes to the “cost” side of the fiscal ledger for migrants is the cost of free (i.e., government-funded) schools for the children of immigrants. In this post, I’ll take a closer look at the objection in light of a few different possible belief systems regarding how education must be funded.

In one important respect, however, the specifics of the belief systems are irrelevant to my broader point. In each case, I will consider a possible general principle, and then note the tension between that principle and a differential treatment of migrants and natives. In other words, for each position on the purpose and funding of education, I am questioning what Sebastian calls the moral relevance of countries while applying that principle.

Education as private good that should be funded privately

On this view, schooling and education should be paid for privately, either by the student, or the parents, or through private philanthropy, or educational loans. If you take this view, then it would be correct to view the cost of schooling immigrants’ kids in government schools as a subsidy from the government to the immigrants. But there is nothing in this view that distinguishes immigrants’ kids — the same rules apply for natives. People who take this view should be advocating the separation of school and state, not complaining about immigrant consumption of schooling alone.

Education as state investment or social investment

According to this view, which is more widely held, the state invests in the schooling of children, helping them acquire human capital, and then recoups its investment in the form of taxes when the children become adults. By this theory, it’s not immigration that we should be concerned about, it’s emigration — the worry should be that kids will consume schooling, then emigrate to other countries and enrich those other countries with the human capital they acquired (incidentally, this concern has been voiced, but largely in the context of brain drain from underdeveloped countries). As long as the kids plan to live and work in the same country after completing their schooling, the fact that they’re immigrants should not cause any worry (and incidentally, this also provides a purely pragmatic “cost-recovery” argument against deportation — why deport people after having invested in their education, before the investment can be recouped?). At any rate, comparing the money that the state spends on the kids with the fiscal contributions of the kids’ parents seems at odds with this theory. If one really believed that the money spent on children’s education should be related to their parents’ (rather than their own) fiscal contributions, one should probably revert to some form of the private parent-funded view of education.

Another related point is that in many places, such as the United States, educational funding is at the state and local rather than national (federal) level, so that even if people stay within the country, they may move to another state. This points in the direction of being concerned not only about immigrants, but also about natives who are likely to move between states. Given that a lot of natives, particularly those at higher skill levels (and hence, the people likely to have higher incomes and pay higher taxes), spend their adult lives in a different state than where they spend their childhood, this is a big problem for the “education as investment” theory.

Yet another point may be that educational investment for certain kinds of students simply doesn’t yield a good return on investment, and immigrants are disproportionately represented in those categories. But if you believe that, you should advocate curriculum reform, introduction of vocational education, an end to compulsory schooling, and/or more stringent performance criteria for eligibility for government-funded schooling, not complain about immigrant overuse of educational resources.

Education as moral right

This view is also widely held. According to this view, all members of the community deserve an education, regardless of whether it helps make them economically productive. However, there is a tension between the language of moral rights and the concern that people should coercively be prevented from using the resource. One has to have a very strong citizenistic view to believe that this right extends to citizens. However, even to the extent that it applies only to citizens, many of the children of immigrants whose schooling is considered a downside of immigration are either already citizens or are on a path to citizenship. Perhaps there is currently uncertainty as to whether they will eventually become citizens, or perhaps you believe that they should not become citizens. Nonetheless, childhood is a uniquely optimal period for providing education. This suggests that, if there’s a reasonable probability of their becoming citizens, and if education is indeed a moral right, then educating the children of immigrants is morally required.

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