When Milt Pippenger, superintendent of the Garden City school district in western Kansas, walks through his schools, he hears languages from around the world.
More than half of his 7,900 students are Hispanic, with many of those recent arrivals from Mexico, Central America and South America. Other students are from southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
Pippenger said he knew some of the students were the children of illegal or undocumented immigrants. But their citizenship or residency status didn't matter when it came to providing them an education, he said.
A 20-year-old ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits public schools from denying immigrant students access to a public education.
A woman who apparently has won election to the State Board of Education doesn't think that's right.
Connie Morris of St. Francis said Kansas taxpayers should not have to pay for the education of students whose parents are in the state illegally. Morris won the Aug. 6 Republican Party primary and faces no Democrat in the general election.
Asked if he shared her views, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Shallenburger said he didn't know.
"I haven't thought about it. Ask me in about a week. I'll have to think about it," Shallenburger said.
The Democratic candidate, Kathleen Sebelius, said she disagreed with Morris and that Kansas should provide an education to undocumented immigrant students.
"We have an obligation to educate every child living in Kansas period," said Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran-Basso.
That's what the law says, too, and several immigrant experts said they found it surprising that neither Morris nor Shallenburger seemed aware of that fact.
Joseph Berra, attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Antonio, said the question of providing public school education to immigrants had been resolved with a 1982 Supreme Court decision in a Texas case, and the only reason it may become a question in Kansas is because of the increasing number of immigrants.
"It's an indication how some irrational fears and prejudices against immigrants have come back into our culture to the point that issues that have been settled for 20 years are now live issues. Maybe Kansas is experiencing more recently an influx of immigrants that has driven some concerns about undocumented immigrants," Berra said.
Immigrants in Kansas
The Hispanic population in Kansas is growing rapidly. The number of Hispanics in the state more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, and Hispanics now make up 7 percent of Kansas' population. The federal government recently ordered Kansas to provide ballots in English and Spanish in six southwestern Kansas counties.
State education officials say they have no idea how many undocumented children are in the public school system.
Groups that want restrictions in immigration agree with Morris.
David Ray, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said taxpayers should be upset at having to pay the expense of educating children who are here illegally.
"The country should focus on giving the best education to the children who are here legally; the children whose families have a stake in the United States," Ray said. "People who can be deported tomorrow and have no ties to this country, it's debatable whether taxpayers should spend a dime on them."
Others disagree, noting that undocumented workers pay taxes and many of them and their children eventually become citizens and with their education improve the labor force.
Regardless, Pippenger, the Garden City school superintendent, said even if federal law didn't require it, he would teach children of illegal immigrants.
"From a moral standpoint, I owe it to educate every youngster living in my district. They have no control over what their circumstances are," he said.