The impact of refugees on local children

Following an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, more than 4,000 refugee children entered Florida’s school system, most of them in four school districts. What impact did their arrival have on existing students in those schools?

In an article in the Journal of Labor Economics, David Figlio and Umut Özek draw on student-level administrative data from Florida that provides detailed information on all students enrolled in a public school between 2002–3 and 2011–12. These include reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and maths scores for students between grades 3 and 10 (Years 4-11), as well as a wealth of student characteristics.

Using data from the year before the earthquake, and the two years after, they found that there was a neutral to positive impact on the children already in the schools. In particular, in the spring of 2010, each percentage point increase in refugee concentration was associated with 0.6%–0.7% of a standard deviation increase in reading test scores, 0.3%–0.4% of a standard deviation increase in maths test scores, and 0.2–0.6 percentage points fewer disciplinary incidents. They found that these results — neutral or slightly positive impacts — were consistent across sub-groups of students (by age, place of birth, race/ethnicity, spoken language, and socio-economic status). The researchers caution that these results are not necessarily generalisable, since, for example, Florida has one of the most equitable school funding distributions in the US and, with a substantial existing population of Haitian immigrants, may have systems and approaches in place that helped to mitigate any potential impact on local students.

Source: Unwelcome Guests? The Effects of Refugees on the Educational Outcomes of Incumbent Students (July 2019) Journal of Labor Economics