NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) sent a letter (PDF) to 136 New Jersey school districts today advising them to change their discriminatory enrollment policies or face litigation.

The ACLU-NJ has identified 136 school districts that require overly restrictive forms of identification for an adult to enroll a child in school, contrary to state and federal law. Almost every New Jersey county had at least one school district with problematic identification guidelines, which tend to single out immigrant families. The ACLU-NJ’s website has a chart of every district identified.

"Time and again, courts have ruled that in a democratic society, the doors of public schools must be open for all children who live here," said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. "Yet we still see schools putting up unconstitutional barriers that single out some students as less worthy of an education than others. All New Jersey school districts must uphold our democratic ideals by letting all New Jersey children enroll in school, as the law requires."

The ACLU-NJ has given the school districts four weeks to reform their policies and practices before broaching the subject of litigation. The policies among the 136 districts varied widely in degree. Some districts requested both Social Security numbers and government-issued photo identification, a combination that plainly discriminates against children of undocumented parents. Other districts’ guidelines, such as those calling for photo ID without requiring that it be state-issued, also prevent or discourage undocumented parents from registering their children.

"These regulations may not have been issued with any intent to discriminate, but regardless of why these regulations were put in place, in practice they prevent some children from getting the education they’re entitled to by law," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "All New Jersey school districts need to erase these policies from the books."

The policies that call for state-issued identification all require a Social Security number or valid immigration status, which singles out immigrant communities in particular as ineligible for enrollment in school. New Jersey law requires proof only of the child’s age and residency within the district. While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. Although the state Department of Education sends a semiannual reminder to school districts about enrollment requirements, nearly a quarter of public schools illegally ask for overly restrictive forms of identification.

The ACLU-NJ investigated the policies of school districts after residents of Butler in Morris County brought their school district’s restrictive ID policy to the ACLU-NJ’s attention. After forcing the ACLU-NJ to bring the matter to court, Butler agreed to institute nondiscriminatory enrollment policies that comport with the clearly established law. In following up after Butler, the ACLU-NJ learned of more school districts and identified 136 that have onerous identification requirements, including some of New Jersey’s largest cities.

The school districts of Jersey City, Trenton, Hamilton Township, Perth Amboy, Camden, Cherry Hill, East Orange, Montclair and Old Bridge, among the most populous municipalities in the state, all require IDs from families of prospective students that do not comply with state law. Bergen County had the highest number of school districts with restrictive ID policies, with 26 not complying. In 2011, the ACLU-NJ represented a resident of Bergen County who encountered difficulty enrolling his son in the Northern Valley Regional School District because of his status as an immigrant from Israel living in the United States on a visa. That school district now has an enrollment policy that does not discriminate against potential students based on their families’ immigration status.

"We were surprised by the number and broad range of school districts with restrictive, discriminatory enrollment policies," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "These policies exist in every almost county, from the poorest cities to the wealthiest suburbs, and everywhere in between. Clearly, the scale of this problem demands serious action, and serious self-examination among New Jersey school districts."

To see every New Jersey school district with a restrictive ID policy in place, read the ACLU-NJ’s findings online.

In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Forty-six of these school districts still engage in discriminatory ID policies, according to the ACLU-NJ’s latest analysis.

"The Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that all children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "We many never know how many children have been deprived of an education because of the failure of school districts to comply with constitutional requirements."

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