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Are immigrants dragging down the public school system?

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Posted: Saturday, June 19, 2010 12:00 am

When I grew up in California during the mid-1950s, the state's proudest achievement was its outstanding public school system. Now, 50 years later, K-12 is a disaster with little hope for improvement over the short term.

The findings of the Center for Immigration Studies' recently released report titled, "A State Transformed: Immigration and the New California," aren't shocking to teachers and parents who have personally experienced California's education system. But to read the dismal statistics laid out in black and white about California having the least-educated workforce of all 50 states is profoundly troubling.

The leading culprit in California's fall from grace is immigration, both legal and illegal.

Despite having spent hundreds of billions of dollars since 1970 to school immigrants and their children, California ranks last in an evaluation of its workforce's educational level.

Between 1970 and 2008, the share of California's legal and illegal immigrant population tripled, growing from 9 percent to 27 percent. The demands on our schools increased accordingly. Ultimately, teachers were overwhelmed.

Historically, as the report's author, Dr. Steven Camarota, discovered, California was not a state with disproportionately large unskilled and low-income populations.

Relative to other states, it had one of the more educated labor forces in terms of its share of workers who had high school diplomas, and ranked seventh in that category.

But today, California ranks 50th and has the largest share of its labor force that has not completed high school. This decline corresponds directly with a sustained immigration increase.

While some employers in the agriculture and service industries argue that a continued stream of unskilled immigrant workers is desirable, it does not serve the common good.

The low level of educational attainment in the state is likely to create challenges in California for the foreseeable future.

As the Center for Immigration Studies somewhat surprisingly points out, legal immigration is a more important factor shaping California than is illegal immigration. Findings made by the Department of Homeland Security indicates that about three-fourths of California's immigrants are in the state legally.

According to the study, if only native-born persons were considered, California would rank 25th instead of last.

In 2008, 5.6 percent of natives in the California labor force had not completed high school. When immigrants are counted, 16 percent of the state's labor force is made up of persons who have not completed high school.

Alarmingly, absent a change in immigration policy, large numbers of less-educated immigrants (legal and illegal) will arrive and settle in California, adding to an already large unskilled work force.

Worse, there is no indication that California will close its educational gap with other states.

The state ranked 35th in terms of its share of 19-year-olds who have graduated high school. Of 19-year-old immigrants in California, 28.1 percent have not graduated high school. Among them, 63.4 percent are immigrants or are the children of immigrant fathers or mothers.

The most sobering statistic of all is that of adult immigrants who arrived in California in 2007 and the first half of 2008, 30.8 percent (91,000) had not completed high school.

Given the large number of unskilled immigrants being added to the state and the relatively low rate of high school completion among its 19-year-olds just entering the labor force, it's probable that California will remain one of the least-educated states in the country for a long time, if not indefinitely.

As I have written since my opinion column first appeared in the Lodi News-Sentinel about 10 years ago, federal immigration policy may benefit the individuals who come to California seeking a better life. And lax immigration enforcement increases the profits of unscrupulous employers who take advantage of a labor force that has few options.

But the majority of Californians have not benefited from immigration. An uneducated populace cannot be productive.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He now lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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