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MN education officials: New immigration rules could strip funding from schools, students

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A turkey lentil tostada and slaw with cilantro lime sauce.
A turkey lentil tostada, slaw with cilantro lime sauce, purple daikon radish and Mixmi cherry frozen yogurt is served for lunch on Feb. 6, 2019, at Bancroft Elementary School in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Minnesota's top education officials are concerned that recently announced changes to immigration rules will take funding and support away from Minnesota students and schools.

The Trump administration last month announced new rules that would penalize legal immigrants who rely on public benefits.

The new rule was finalized in mid-August and is set to take effect on Oct. 15. But there are legal challenges. Over a dozen attorneys general across the country, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, have sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the rule.

Assistant Education Commissioner Daron Korte said schools are concerned some immigrant families may not sign up for programs they're legally allowed to participate in — such as free and reduced-lunch programs, which aren’t affected by the new rule.

"We think it's probably likely there's going to be an overall chilling effect for all state and federal assistance programs because of this rule,” Korte said. “Families aren't going to know necessarily which ones are subject to the rule and which ones aren't."

In Minnesota, if a student receives benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that student is automatically certified for free or reduced-price lunch.

But the new rules mean legal immigrants could be denied green cards and visas if they use — or are expected to use — a wide range of government benefits, including SNAP, housing vouchers and Medicaid.

Korte said he is concerned about a cascade effect. If families take themselves off SNAP benefits, they won’t be automatically enrolled for free and reduced-price lunch in Minnesota.

“We anticipate a drop in free and reduced-price lunch participation both because of the loss of direct certification and also because of families being reluctant to fill out the forms,” Korte said.

The assistant commissioner said the new rule changes could have a deep and long-lasting effect on the students and families who withdraw from nutrition programs.

“You lose SNAP and that means you have less resources to purchase healthy and nutritious food to be served at home. Then if you add on top of that the loss of free and reduced price lunch ... then they’re also not receiving those healthy and nutritious meals at school,” Korte said. “So, that combined can have a really profound effect on a student’s ability to learn.”

More than hungry kids

But the rule change won’t just mean hungry children and long-term effects on health and education. Korte said it could also have a profound effect on all students in Minnesota schools — not just those who have family in the immigration system or are themselves immigrants.

Free and reduced-price lunch enrollment is used to measure poverty levels in districts and determine the amount of compensatory education revenue districts receive from the state. If fewer students are signing up for free and reduced-price lunch, Korte says, districts will receive less funding.

“School sites are operating on tight budgets and to the extent that they’re losing this revenue, those students are still there, the students are still going to require those services, [and] they’re just going to have less resources to provide those,” Korte said. “It could mean reduced staffing, it could mean reduced wraparound services ... It could mean less curriculum and instruction materials ... There’s any number of ways it could impact all students at the school.”

Korte said his department is also concerned about Medicaid funding. Under the new rule, legal immigrants who use Medicaid could be subject to a public charge determination, but Medicaid services that are provided in the school environment aren’t penalized.

Still, Korte thinks immigrant parents will now be less likely to sign their children up for Medicaid benefits.

“Under federal law, a district is required to provide those services no matter what,” Korte said. “If a student’s no longer enrolled in Medicaid, the district’s not receiving that reimbursement from the federal government to pay for those services, [and] the district has to pay for those services themselves.”

Korte said the Minnesota Department of Education has received questions and concerns about the new rule and is working on getting clear, consistent and accurate information to Minnesota districts, students and families.

“Making really clear that, free and reduced-price lunch isn’t a part of this. You can sign up for it, still be safe. To provide that assurance for them I think is going to be really important,” Korte said.

He said his department is also working with districts to figure out ways to mitigate the loss of funding the rule change might cause.

“This rule doesn’t change the services that these families require. It just changes who’s going to pay for it now, which I think is sort of the short-sighted thought of the self-sufficiency,” Korte said. “This isn’t going to change the self-sufficiency of people, it’s just going to change where they’re getting their needs met.”