The state’s largest school district is moving forward with plans to explore giving voting rights to non-citizen parents in the district.
The Los Angeles Unified School District’s board on Tuesday is expected to pass a resolution directing Superintendent Austin Beutner to organize a work group that will study the possibility of giving voting rights to all parents and legal guardians of students in the district, regardless of citizenship. The study group will report back to the board within 180 days with a decision on whether to propose a ballot measure that would give those parents the right to vote and make Los Angeles the second city in California to do so.
San Francisco last year became the first city in the state and one of only a few in the nation to allow noncitizens to vote in a local election. The impact of the change, however, has been limited, as only a small number of non-citizens have registered to vote in the city, likely because of fear of national immigration policy under the Trump administration.
Allowing non-citizens to vote in Los Angeles could have a significant impact. California has more immigrants than any other state and more immigrants live in Los Angeles County than any other region in the state, according to the University of Southern California.
Among other tasks, the Los Angeles Unified study group would explore ways to ensure the confidentiality of non-citizen parents if they are provided the right to vote, a hurdle San Francisco has yet to overcome. On its election website, San Francisco warns non-citizens that information provided to the Department of Elections — including name and address — may be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies and individuals.
The Los Angeles resolution was unanimously approved by the board’s Legislative Advocacy Committee last month. It provides no specific timeline for implementation, but if the district decides to move forward with the proposal, it would need to be approved first by the Los Angeles City Council and then placed on the ballot. If approved by voters, in addition to San Francisco, Los Angeles would join Chicago and several cities in Maryland in allowing non-citizens to vote in some elections.
Experts say that allowing non-citizen parents to vote in elections could improve outcomes for students, who perform better academically when their parents are more engaged.
Kelly Gonez, the board member who authored the resolution, said she was inspired to introduce the proposal in part because of her experience running for school board in 2017, when she often interacted with immigrant parents.
“Many of them were very interested and passionate about the issues that were at play in the school board election but didn’t have the ability to make the decision for themselves as to who would represent them on the school board,” she said.
L.A. Unified does not track the number of individuals without citizenship in the district, but Los Angeles County is home to about 3.5 million immigrants.
Chicago has allowed non-citizens to vote in school board elections since 1989. About a dozen towns in Maryland — including Takoma Park, Chevy Chase and Hyattsville — allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
In San Francisco, voter participation among non-citizen parents has lagged since they were given the right to vote in school board elections. Ron Hayduk, a professor at San Francisco State University with expertise in immigrant voting rights, said there is “no doubt” that fear over retaliation from federal authorities has deterred those individuals from voting.
Advocates in Los Angeles have said they are concerned about the confidentiality of immigrant parents if they are provided the ability to register for elections and fearful that Los Angeles Unified could similarly see low voter turnout.
Juan Ramirez, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said during a committee hearing when the resolution was introduced that the teachers union’s “only concern” is the privacy of parents.
Mariana Magaña, a policy advocate for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, an immigrant advocacy group based in Los Angeles, similarly said the confidentiality of immigrant parents is a top priority for her organization.
“That’s always a concern of ours, I think, be it with this situation or with any information that our community members give to any government entity. Our primary concern is what are the legal protections behind it, so that ICE does not have access to it,” Magaña told EdSource.
Gonez said she understands concerns over confidentiality and won’t support moving forward with a ballot measure until they are fully addressed. Her resolution states that Los Angeles Unified’s proposal must “include strategies for assuring the confidentiality of the right to vote and assuaging fears of retaliation due to immigration status.”
“I think fears and concerns are completely legitimate,” Gonez said. “And that’s why the resolution at the outset made it clear that we don’t want to move forward with any actionable proposal beyond this first step that we’re taking if we can’t ensure that our families’ privacy will be protected and that we are not putting any families in harm’s way.”
The study group will include parents as well as representatives from immigrant advocacy organizations, civic engagement organizations, the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office, the Office of the City Clerk and district labor partners.
Allowing non-citizen parents to vote could also improve the academic performance of their children, said Hayduk, the San Francisco State University professor. A body of research shows that increased parent involvement is correlated with greater academic achievements for students.
“Kids learn better if their parents are connected to their education process,” he said. “And that’s really across the board in academic studies. It’s an indisputable finding.”
Magaña, the policy advocate for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said she often witnesses non-citizen parents already engaging in their children’s academic activities. But she added that, if implemented sensibly, giving those parents the right to vote will expand their voices in the district.
“Granting them that opportunity to participate in a school board election will just further increase their involvement and also increase the success of their children when they go on from LAUSD schools,” she said.