Don't let brains go to waste

Theoretically, no one's in favor of wasting brains. If Oregonians could insert themselves to prevent that, we're confident most would.

The problem is there are no instrument panels on young foreheads to clock brain deterioration, no nightly forecasts of brain power outages. Lacking quantification, it's easy to pretend it isn't happening. Sadly, it is pervasive.

That's why we're glad to see a swarm of Oregon legislators —11 Democrats and five Republicans — sounding a kind of bipartisan brain alarm. They're pushing for Senate Bill 742, which would offer a narrow remedy: in-state college tuition for some high school students brought to Oregon illegally.

It is a settled point of law that these children cannot be treated like serfs and deprived of elementary or secondary schooling. In a 1982 landmark, Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that had enabled school districts to shut out illegal immigrants.

To let this stand, the court said, "raises the specter of a permanent caste ... encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens."

Benefits that include the ability to build your own escape hatch, by doing well in school. "By denying these children a basic education," Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority, "we ... foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation."

The same arguments, that it's unfair and un-American, also apply to foreclosing the practical possibility of paying for college. But what strikes us is how unwise and shortsighted it is for our state to squash potential.

Forcible removal of 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States is not realistic. So, like it or not, most children who grow up here are going to wind up spending their lives here. Most already face huge barriers even to graduating from high school. They're under enormous pressure to drop out, take any job they can find and make do at the bottom rungs of society.

Those who are actually fired up enough to persist, burst through other barriers and graduate come face to face with a final stop sign. They can't afford to pay out-of-state tuition and fees. Even paying in-state costs of $7,000 per year at Portland State University can be a stretch. Paying $21,500? That out-of-state PSU price tag puts college out of reach.

For years, educators have been warning that it's perilous to sidetrack talent, resourcefulness and an extraordinary work ethic, wherever these qualities are to be found. The repercussions are felt down through the grades; saying "no" to college telegraphs a "Don't bother" message about school.

SB742 would not confer the right to pay in-state tuition automatically. To qualify, students would have to have lived in our state for three years before graduating from high school.

This bill, in truth, would give a boost only to the highest achievers — those who have the capacity to get into college. Many students would not be helped at all; in fact, educators who work with teens at risk of dropping out say Oregonians should be under no illusions that SB742 is any kind of panacea.

It is not. But it would make better use of brains that yearn to be applied. In a small but real way, signing this into law would make Oregon smarter as a state.

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