An Ethical Analysis of Rights and Fairness
I am for educating migrant children. All children who are residents of California should be educated. The question is whether migrant children have a moral right to be educated.
The 14th amendment of the US Constitution established that anyone born in the US is a US citizen. That would exclude migrant children crossing the border. Obviously, they were not born in the US.
Citizenship is not a condition for enrollment in California K-12 schools. Access to public education in California is open to all resident students, regardless of immigration status.
However, local school districts must verify a student’s age and residency although they have flexibility in what documents or supporting papers they use and there is the rub. It is supposed to include property tax receipts, pay stubs, or correspondence from a government agency. That does not exist for obvious reasons.
Some say we have a moral obligation to educate all children in California regardless of immigration status. This interpretation relies on a rather broad interpretation of rights. In ethics, a right is a justified claim, entitlement, or assertion of what a rights-holder is due. For a person to have the moral right to have, get, or do something, there must be a moral basis or justification for the claim. These bases or justifications are different for different categories of rights.
For example, "human rights" is a name given to those rights that all people have because they are people. Rights possessed by only some are called "special rights." The question then becomes whether legal citizens have a special right to education while migrant children do not.
There is a fairness issue to consider. Is it morally appropriate to educate migrant children while 130,000 legal residents have not been educated in classrooms for over a year due to the pandemic? Thousands must wait until at least April 12 for that to happen.
Fairness is about treating everyone equally unless there is a valid basis to do otherwise. The most fundamental principle of fairness is justice, one that has been widely accepted since it was first defined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago.
The principle holds that "equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally." In its contemporary form, this principle is sometimes expressed as follows: "Individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved."
So, it comes down to whether migrant children without legal status and residency should be given equal access to California schools as legal residents. Does their immigration status create a valid basis to deny them the right to be educated in the state? It does or at least should because to do otherwise discriminates against legal residents.
It does not matter that teachers are volunteering to teach migrant children. That does not change the moral dynamics. What it does is highlight the power and influence of the California Teachers Association that has been using the return to classes as a bargaining chip. Their position has been to oppose in-class instruction without significantly more safety precautions, further complicating hopes for bringing more students back to school for in-person instruction.
Another dimension of the moral issue is the ethical responsibilities of teachers to California children, many of whom are struggling mentally during the prolonged online education.
It has been reported that since last March through May there was a 5 to 7 percent increase in the kids coming to the emergency room at Rady Children’s Hospital. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, psychiatric emergency visits have crept up as youths and teens struggle with virtual learning, social isolation, and unstable home lives.
San Diego teachers, and the CTA specifically, have failed to meet their ethical responsibilities to California kids. They have given special treatment to migrant children with respect to in-person access to education. They have overlooked the mental crisis facing California youths and teens.
The damage to the educational development of California kids is inextricably linked to the length of time they have been forced to endure remote learning. Has the CTA thought about how the schools will play catch up once they return to the classroom? Have they considered the loss of competitiveness of our kids when compared to Chinese kids who have been back to the classroom since last September?
These are unanswered questions that the CTA should be considering rather than looking for rationalizations to support teaching migrant children in-person.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 5, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.