A teen who's a US citizen grew up and studied in a foreign country. He wants to return to US.

Would he be eligible to attend public high school in the US (grade 10-12)?

He isn't paying US tax (his parents aren't US citizens). But he's going to living in his friend's house though (who's a tax payer).

  • 1
    Living with a taxpayer who's not your partner or legal guardian shouldn't make a difference to what you personally are and aren't allowed or eligible to do.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 2, 2019 at 14:01
  • 1
    Are his friends' parents going to have any legal responsibility for him?
    – phoog
    Jun 2, 2019 at 19:03
  • @phoog The parents will take care of him but I'm not sure do the legal responsibility you meant requires to go through legal process like court. If yes, then no. Jun 3, 2019 at 8:46
  • @Andrew.Wolphoe I also do not know what it would take to place legal responsibility in the hands of the friend's parents, but from the comments on the accepted answer, it appears that (in some states at least) that would be necessary before the child could be considered a resident of the state. Are the student's parents going to be in the US or abroad?
    – phoog
    Jun 3, 2019 at 17:26
  • @phoog In the US. Jun 3, 2019 at 22:16

2 Answers 2


Public schools are open to all residents. There is no citizenship requirement and no "tax payer" requirement. Unless excepted for home schooling or attending a recognized private school, in most locations it would not only be allowed, but mandatory between certain ages.

  • The is there any residing time restrictions? Like you must live there in the school district for at least a couple months or so. Jun 2, 2019 at 5:40
  • That will vary by locality. Jun 2, 2019 at 6:05
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    This answer obfuscates that living with a friend who is not your legal guardian does not make you a "resident" (at least in my home state). MCL 380.1148a: "the child shall be considered to be a resident of a school district in which either of the child's parents resides, or in which the child's legal guardian resides".
    – Xerxes
    Jun 2, 2019 at 15:02
  • 2
    @Xerxes: Note also that there are exceptions in MCL 380.1148 for students who are "placed in a licensed home or in a home of relatives in the school district for the purpose of securing a suitable home for the child and not for an educational purpose." In other words, if your parents can't provide you a safe home environment and you're living with an aunt for that reason, you can go to school where your aunt lives. But this sort of exception wouldn't apply to the OP. Jun 2, 2019 at 15:49
  • 2
    @MichaelSeifert - it may, depending on what country student is coming from. EG, right now Venezuela, parts of the middle east, etc.
    – ivanivan
    Jun 2, 2019 at 15:55

The reason why anybody is entitled to go to public schools is spelled out in Plyler v. Doe, 457 US 202, that

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that "[n]o State shall. . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Illegal immigrants, and certainly citizens, are within the jurisdiction of that state. The court explained that

The Equal Protection Clause directs that "all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike." F. S. Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U. S. 412, 415 (1920). But so too, "[t]he Constitution does > not require things which are different in fact or opinion to be treated in law > as though they were the same." Tigner v. Texas, 310 U. S. 141, 147 (1940).

So the question is whether the courts should defer to a state law denying illegal immigrants access to public schools. This raises the question of the kind of scrutiny / deference appropriate to such a law. The court found that public education is an intermediate case, calling for intermediate scrutiny:

Public education is not a "right" granted to individuals by the Constitution. San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 1, 35 (1973). But neither is it merely some governmental "benefit" indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation.

That is, strict scrutiny is not appropriate, but "rational basis" is too weak. Having enumerated the consequence of denying students access to schools, the court concluded that

In light of these countervailing costs, the discrimination contained in § 21.031 can hardly be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the State.

The goal set forth by the state was that

the classification at issue furthers an interest in the "preservation of the state's limited resources for the education of its lawful residents."

One apparent colorable interest is that "the State may seek to protect itself from an influx of illegal immigrants". But the court concludes that

While a State might have an interest in mitigating the potentially harsh economic effects of sudden shifts in population, § 21.031 hardly offers an effective method of dealing with an urgent demographic or economic problem. There is no evidence in the record suggesting that illegal entrants impose any significant burden on the State's economy. To the contrary, the available evidence suggests that illegal aliens underutilize public services, while contributing their labor to the local economy and tax money to the state fisc.

A second possibility is that "undocumented children are appropriately singled out for exclusion because of the special burdens they impose on the State's ability to provide high-quality public education". The court finds this also uncompelling, because

the record in no way supports the claim that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State. As the District Court in No. 80-1934 noted, the State failed to offer any "credible supporting evidence that a proportionately small diminution of the funds spent on each child [which might result from devoting some state funds to the education of the excluded group] will have a grave impact on the quality of education."

Finally it is suggested that "unlawful presence within the United States renders them less likely than other children to remain within the boundaries of the State, and to put their education to productive social or political use within the State", but again the court rebuffs this argument

Even assuming that such an interest is legitimate, it is an interest that is most difficult to quantify. The State has no assurance that any child, citizen or not, will employ the education provided by the State within the confines of the State's borders. In any event, the record is clear that many of the undocumented children disabled by this classification will remain in this country indefinitely, and that some will become lawful residents or citizens of the United States.

The summary is that "It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation". The law was overturned because

If the State is to deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders, that denial must be justified by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest. No such showing was made here.

Public school's are not, under US Constitutional law, open to all residents. However, state laws and school district policies impose relatively few restrictions on enrollment. Washington state only allows discrimination based on age group, grade level, or enrollment capacity, and specifically disallows discrimination based on location of residence. It also allows (for common schools) a school age child who is otherwise eligible and residing in an Idaho home with a Washington postal address (that is a bit odd, but it happens) to be treated as a resident of the nearest Washington district.

It is highly likely that in the case you're describing the law already admits the student for free education, but you would have to check local laws to be 100% certain. If there is a requirement that free schooling is not available to people who are not living with their parent, or whose parents are not US citizens, there is the option of suing to get that law overturned. In light of Plyler v. Doe, it seems unlikely that there would even be any such law, unless it was recently passed to get the attention of SCOTUS. That would include an interpretation of "residency" for school purposes that assert that a child is a resident of the district where his parents or legal guardian lives (i.e. a child who is for other purposes a resident would be deemed a non-resident for the purpose of school attendance).

  • 1
    This answer is a bit confusing, since it considers at such length the question of immigration status, when the student in question is a US citizen and the student's parents are, for all we know, not in the US at all.
    – phoog
    Jun 3, 2019 at 17:27

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