MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - There is a noticeable change in the makeup of students in classrooms across Alabama. The Hispanic population has more than tripled in the last ten years.
Nearly 50% of teacher Tracy Johns' class is what the school system calls English Learners, meaning English is their second language. Johns says it presents significant challenges for the teacher, students and parents.
The State Department of Education spends nearly $6 million a year to teach English as a second language to more than 20,000 students. That's in addition to nearly $9,000 the system already spends on each student. Add it up and that's $189 million a year on English learners. A rising cost at a time when education spending is going down. "To me the parents should pay taxes just to pay for the schools just like every one else does," said parent Monty Gentry.
Parent Alicia Peterson questioned, "Why not educate the kids who are here, legal or not? We are talking about children."
Isabel Rubio, Executive Director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama says the price of not educating all children, legal or illegal, is too high.
The Pew Hispanic Center reports illegal immigrants are parents to 5 million children in the U.S. 4 million were born here, automatically making them U.S. citizens. The rest were brought into the U.S., making them illegal immigrants. So, how many are in Alabama schools? Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice says legal or not, the law requires public schools to educate all children. "We serve children, whoever shows up at the door of a public school," says Bice.
Representative Greg Wren says it's a growing financial burden. He wants the legislature to do something to help. "We are going to make some aggressive moves in this next legislative session on immigration reform. We have to. Let the federal government sue us or not," says Rep. Wren.
Both Rep. Wren and Dr. Bice agree the children aren't to blame.
"They are not here by any choice of their own. They have worked hard. They've done well. By not addressing that, we may be denying an opportunity for the next Einstein," says Bice.
Adds Rep. Wren, "They did not choose where they were born. We've got to have paths to citizenship for that mother."
A child's inability to speak English has no bearing on his legal status in the United States.