Editorials

With the best of intentions, a California rule leads to dropouts and splits families

The dropout rate for children in migrant worker housing ranges up to 90 percent, due in part to an obscure rule that uproots families during the school year. Shown here, children at Yolo County’s Madison Migrant Center.
The dropout rate for children in migrant worker housing ranges up to 90 percent, due in part to an obscure rule that uproots families during the school year. Shown here, children at Yolo County’s Madison Migrant Center. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

No doubt with good and sincere intentions, California under Gov. Pat Brown in the 1960s built housing for migrant farmworkers, who too often would have no place to sleep after toiling in the fields.

Today, 24 housing centers, located from Williams at this end of the Central Valley to Arvin at the south end, house 10,000 farmworkers, giving them an inexpensive, safe and clean place to sleep after a hot day of hard work.

The housing, once occupied by single men, now is reserved for families. But an obscure regulation governing a basic aspect of the housing has the unfortunate consequence of disrupting the education of the children of migrant farmworkers, and splitting families up. That rule needs an overhaul.

Known as the 50-mile regulation, it says that workers have to move 50 miles or more from the housing center to be eligible to reside there the following year.

While most Californians are feasting on Thanksgiving, farm workers who made those meals possible are getting ready to pull their children out of school.

Since the housing is only available from late spring through late autumn, thousands of children of migrant farmworkers are pulled out of school every six months. So while most Californians are feasting on Thanksgiving, farmworkers who made those meals possible are getting ready to pull their children out of school.

It’s no doubt one reason for what the advocacy group Human Agenda says is a 90 percent dropout rate for the children who live in state-run migrant housing. Not surprisingly, the San Jose-based organization found that 96.7 percent of parents in migrant housing thought their children would benefit from the ability to finish the year in the same school.

California has made strides helping the children of migrant workers stay in school. But a 90 percent dropout rate shows that these services simply don’t make up for the classroom time that children miss.

In an important and welcome step, California’s Office of Migrant Services convened a hearing on the issue, but held it at 4 p.m. on the Friday of the long July Fourth weekend. Predictably, fewer than two dozen people showed up. Still, the discussion is overdue.

The rule, apparently, is anomalous. Neither federal government agencies nor other farm states determine housing eligibility through a distance rule. The genesis of California’s rule has been lost to history. But according to the Department of Housing and Community Development, the requirement likely dates to the mid-1970s, preceding the department’s responsibility for the housing program.

What is known is the rule’s impact on people such as Aracel Fernandez. The daughter of farmworkers, now a farmworker herself, is a mother of four with a 7-year-old son still in school in Watsonville. She spoke at the Office of Migrant Services hearing two weeks ago.

In a California Forum column, The Sacramento Bee’s Sergio Lopez described Fernandez as wanting what any parent wants: a better life for her children. She knows that education is their ticket. Her older sons and her daughter did manage to graduate from high school. But to earn their diplomas, she told Lopez, they had to either move around from school to school or stay behind with friends or family while Fernandez followed the crops. The separation, she said, was “very painful.”

There are dangers attendant with scrapping the rule. A representative from California Rural Legal Assistance raised questions about changing the rule, saying changing the definition of a migrant worker could lead to non-farmworkers taking the housing. That issue ought to be addressed. But the future of the children ought to be paramount.

The Legislature has made only halfhearted attempts to address the issue. Then-Assemblyman Paul Fong, a San Jose Democrat, introduced a bill in 2010 to address the 50-mile rule by granting exemptions for families with children in school to stay in the housing year-round. But the bill died, in part because of the cost of upgrading the centers to accommodate people during the winter months.

The solution need not be complex or costly. The Office of Migrant Services, which expects to issue a summary of public comment soon, could simply adopt a definition of migrant workers that omits the 50-mile rule. Families could seek alternative housing near their children’s school districts while they finish out the semester, and move after children have taken their exams.

The office can and should do more than produce a report. They should solve this too-long-neglected problem. And a solution should be in place before the season changes and more kids are uprooted from their classrooms.

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