Special Education Migrant Students and the Need for a National Migrant Student Tracking Database


The purpose of special education is to provide equal access to education for all students within the least restrictive learning environment. Because of new laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, educators are legally and ethically required to make sure that all students have the opportunity to receive an education that will empower them to reach their potential. Unfortunately, there are many students who tend to fall through the cracks of our education system. One group in particular includes the children who are classified as migrant students with c'existent disabilities.

Historically, there have been many barriers for children with learning disabilities. And the laws that have been enacted within the last 25 years have resulted in many more children gaining the services they need to be successful.

However, migrant children are severely impacted on all fronts. One of the "most needy groups [includes] migrant students who transfer from school district to school district, within or between states, accompanying their parents on a quest for seasonal employment" (Lozano-Rodriguez 1999). Migrant students who are disabled have severe complications because of their poverty, lack of healthcare and transiency. In the past, migrant students have been overlooked due to the lack of information sharing between "regular, migrant and special educators" (Lozano-Rodriguez 1999).

In addition, their transiency d'es not lend itself to the complicated referral process in the special education arena, which has only compounded the problem. Today, there is still a significant number of migrant students who have learning disabilities, but who have not been assessed because of their frequent moves. If these students do have active Individual Education Plans (IEPs), their information may not be effectively conveyed to the next school of enrollment. This results in an inability for the education system to keep track of migrant students and a failure to provide consistency in their education.

Although migrant workers are prevalent in California - sometimes described as the state's "hidden gold" - it is not the only state in the nation that has a large population of migrant workers. These "people are rarely seen or heard from in our society - yet are heavily depended on to nourish our economy and to provide food for our families" (ETN 2002). Migrant workers and their families provide us with nourishment, yet live in deplorable conditions. This group d'es not achieve equal access to health care and education. While our children are fed by their diligent work in the fields, their children are not being fed academically.

Equal Access to Education

Because the children of migrant workers move from school to school and state to state, it is very difficult to provide them with equal access to education. The situation is further complicated by the lack of a truly national database of migrant students. There is currently no effective coordination of services for migrant students on a national level. The ability for a school to have access to a student's history is even more necessary when migrant children have special education needs. It is obvious from the length of time that it takes for a cumulative folder to be received from a school that precious time is being wasted. These migrant special education students are not receiving equal access. This lack of communication between schools complicates the process for not only regular migrant students, but for our special education migrant students as well.

A need for a federal-tracking database has been previously identified and implemented; however, it has now been phased out because of new laws. The previous program was called the Migrant Student Record Transfer System (MSRTS). The Record Transfer Committee began with the belief that migrant students were not experiencing a continuity of care in their education. Janis K. Lunon (1986) discusses the historical background of the need for this records database: In 1968, "representatives from 37 states held a conference to discuss this lack of continuity and other problems, including the transfer of educational information about migrant children from one state to another and one teacher to another." She indicates that "educational discontinuity is a problem that often is intensified by the presence of emotional and physical problems." Therefore, if a child was suspected of having a learning disability under MSRTS, then that student's health and learning disabilities would be transferred from school to school along with the student.

The merits of such a program can be enumerated with a long list of positive results. For instance, children would no longer have to be re-evaluated from the beginning. In other words, the wheel would not have to be reinvented each time a child entered a new school. If a child had an IEP at one school, then the IEP could follow the student without the usual three- to five-month delay of the cumulative file arriving at the new school.

'The Passport to the Future'

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), for "more than 30 years [the Migrant Education Program and the Department of Health and Human Services] have served millions of migrant children. In 1998, about 660,000 children received services from MEP and MHS" (GAO 1999). As of 1999, these two government offices have had no way to coordinate their services. There is a "need to transfer key information in a timely way as students move around the country" (GAO 1999). Because of this lack of record management, the GAO has stated that "students may experience inappropriate classroom placements or delays in receiving services, repeat immunizations, or fail to complete high school graduation requirements" (1999).

While some states and counties are trying to correct the problem, there is currently no federal management. For example, Ana Leon is a migrant student program director for Region 8 in California, which presently covers Tulare and Kings Counties. According to her records, there are currently about 17,224 students who are served by the Migrant Department of Education. We are significantly risking the futures of thousands of children in one of California's 23 regions. Leon indicates that the Tulare County Regional Migrant Office is working on a coordination of records-keeping with Washington state, but the coordination of two states is still not even equal to the results that could be seen in the coordination of services between all 50 states.

There are, however, lawmakers that see the need. Rubén Hinojosa, a congressman from Texas, recognizes that "education is the passport to the future for every child" (Rocha 2002). The bill that Hinojosa is trying to pass into law would provide "funding for the creation of a student tracking system that will foster bilingual research and better support [for] Migrant Education Programs" (Rocha 2002).

Furthermore, Warger and Burnette (2000) indicate that "children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds comprise a large percentage of public school students. Diversity is increasing, and one of the most troublesome issues associated with its growth is the overrepresentation of minority children in special education." This is significant because it again implies that there may be inappropriate placements of students into special education when the child may simply need a stable lifestyle. The placement is inappropriate for the student, and is not beneficial if his or her needs are being misidentified. Thus, their needs can be met if there are appropriate and consistent placements of students into special education. This consistency needs to be followed with the student as he or she moves from school to school.


Although there seems to be a lack of current research on the merits of a migrant student database, a national migrant tracking system will have the ability to positively impact the future of our migrant students. As educators, our migrant student population needs to know that that they are valuable. Migrant students must also know that their value is more than that of gold. Our education system is seriously shortchanging migrant students by not providing the continuity of services that a national migrant student tracking system would provide. In the words of Cesar Chavez, "We Mexicans here in the United States, as well as all other farm workers, are engaged in a struggle for the freedom and dignity which poverty denies us" (Falstein 1994). Equal access to education is the best prescription to combat poverty and give dignity. Because we now have the technology to achieve a successful national migrant student tracking system, we must take advantage of this exceptional tool. We need to use this technology to provide equal access to our migrant population among those who are also special education students.


Falstein, M. 1994. Freedom Fighters: Cesar Chavez. New Jersey: Globe Fearon.

Kindler, A. 1995. "Education of Migrant Children in the United States." National Clearinghouse of Bilingual Education. Fall. Online: www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/directions/08.htm.

Knoblauch, B., and B. Sorenson. 1998. "What Disabilities Entitle a Child to Special Education?" ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Online: www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed429396.html.

Lozano-Rodriguez, J., and J. Castellano. 1999. "Assessing LEP Migrant Students for Special Education Services." ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Online: www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed425892.html.

Lunon, J., 1986. "Migrant Student Record System: What It Is and Who Uses It?" ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Online: http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu/abstracts/ed286700.html.

"Migrant Workers: California's Hidden Gold." 2002. Video produced by Educational Telecommunications Network (ETN). Online: http://etn.newsbulletin.lac'e.edu/migrant/index.htm.

Ortiz, A. 1992. "Assessing Appropriate and Inappropriate Referral Systems for LEP Special Education Students." Proceedings of the Second National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Evaluation and Measurement. Online: www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/symposia/second/vol1/assessing.htm.

Rocha, I. 2002. "Elementary and Secondary Education Initiative Becomes Law." Texas Congressman Rubén Hinojosa's Press Release Page. Online: www.house.gov/hinojosa/01072001esea.htm.

U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). 1999. "Migrant Children: Education and HHS Need to Improve the Exchange of Participant Information." Online: www.gao.gov/new.items/he00004.pdf.

Warger, C., and J. Burnett. 2000. "Five Strategies To Reduce Overrepresentation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education." ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Online: www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed447627.html.

Maria Carr is has a bachelor's in Liberal Studies and a master's in Special Education from National University. She currently is a special education teacher at Hanford High School in California. Carr has also taught ESL to adults. In addition, Carr is committed to equal education for all students, but sees the adversity that migrant special education students experience. Maria Carr can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.