No kid left behind: NY AG and Education Commissioner insist on free education for all

August 29, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Just as the new school year is starting, Attorney General Letitia James and NY State Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner Betty Rosa have issued a “Know Your Rights” directive, reaffirming every child aged between 5 and 21 is entitled to free public education in New York, irrespective of their nationality or immigration status.

This advisory delineates the obligations of schools in enrolling new students and cautions against the establishment of policies or prerequisites that could inhibit noncitizens, undocumented students and families lacking a lease from school registration.

“The law is unequivocal: all New Yorkers are guaranteed a free public education, and every resident of our state is a New Yorker,” James said. “As the school year is about to commence, it is imperative that all students are promptly and effortlessly welcomed to attend. I am resolute in defending our youth’s right to education, and I urge any New Yorker denied this fundamental right to reach out to my office.”

Commissioner Rosa added, “All school and district leaders must persistently fulfill their obligation to accept and offer educational support services to these students and their families. Collaborating with Attorney General James and our school and district leaders, we will persist in implementing tangible measures to facilitate a seamless transition for these students. We must cultivate a safe and inviting environment where all students feel a sense of belonging and have the necessary support to thrive.”

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

New York law mandates that students between the ages of 5 and 21 are entitled to free public school education. Any policies hindering students from enrolling in their local public school infringe upon this legal right. Federal and state laws necessitate public schools to admit and enroll school-age migrants and other students facing homelessness or residing in shelters or temporary housing, even if they are unable to provide proof of residency, school records, or other typically required documents for enrollment.

To attend a school district’s schools without charge, students must reside within that district. Although schools can request families to provide documentation confirming residence, they must accept various forms of proof, including, but not limited to:

  • Letter or affidavit from the student’s landlord;
  • Letter or affidavit from a social worker, teacher, lawyer, religious leader or other individual with personal knowledge of the student’s residence;
  • Pay stub indicating the student’s address;
  • Bill for a utility or service, including cell phone, displaying the student’s address;
  • Membership documents based on residency, such as library cards, whether or not they display the student’s address;
  • Government-issued identification showing the student’s address; and documents issued by a government agency, such as a local social services agency or the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, among others.

Upon a student’s request for enrollment, the school must permit the student to commence attending classes the following school day, or as promptly as possible. The student then has three business days to substantiate residency. If the school determines the student is not a resident and, therefore, ineligible to attend, the school must provide written notice explaining the decision and outlining the appeal process.

New York schools should not enforce residency requirements for students that would complicate the registration process for noncitizens, undocumented students and students residing in rented homes without a lease. Such policies include:

  • Requiring proofs of residency less than 30 days old;
  • Requiring students to present proof of residency multiple times if residency has not changed;
  • Conducting home visits to scrutinize every student lacking a lease or deed;
  • Refusing enrollment if a student or their family cannot provide a voter registration card or driver’s license;
  • Requiring a Social Security number or any details about a student’s immigration status as a condition of enrollment; and
  • Reporting or threatening to report information about a student’s living situation to local code-enforcement authorities.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) encourages New Yorkers who have been denied enrollment at their local public school to file a confidential complaint online with the Civil Rights Bureau.

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