Who will pay? That is the immediate concern of taxpayers, educators, and state officials in Texas as they size up the educational cost of complying with a new US District Court ruling that state public schools must open their doors to children of illegal aliens.
The more long-term question is "When do we come to grips with the overall need for improvements in our immigration policy," insists US Associate Attorney General Doris Meissner. She concedes that the failure to control the massive illegal migration from Mexico has made the education issue no problematic. The Justice Department supported the legal effort to open Texas schools to illegal aliens.
The district court said that the 1975 Texas law allowing schools to deny illegals a free education -- many schools charged a tuition of $1,000 per school year -- violated the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. The ruling will be appealed by the Texas Attorney General to the US Fifth Circuit Court. The ruling follows a general trend throughout the US Southwest to increasingly grant illegal aliens the same rights enjoyed by American citizens. California, New Mexico, and Arizona already provide free public education.
Chad Richardson, director of the Institute of Borderlands Studies at Pan America University in Edinburg, Texas, feels granting illegal aliens more rights is in the long-term best interests of the United States. On education, he says, "Raising these children as illiterates becomes a tremendous drain on society in future years," as they are apt to require more in the way of social services.
Some experts argue that illegal aliens typically contribute more in property and income taxes than they ever receive in social services and are thus entitled to free education for their children.
Mr. Richardson points out that illegal aliens from Mexico are increasingly migrating to all parts of the United States. "It's really a national problem," he claims, requiring a total revamping of US-Mexico immigration laws, which have been unable to control the burgeoning population of Mexican illegal aliens in the US -- now estimated at between 4 and 6 million.
US immigration policy is under review by the congressional Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, which will report its findings in March 1981.
In many of this state's urban areas, private schools have been established to educate illegal alien children. But these schools are usually poorly financed and are hard pressed to provide students with basic fluency in English. In more rural areas, such children often receive no formal schooling.
Alton Bowen, Texas commissioner of education, says the state will quickly seek some sort of federal aid to help the public schools. "The federal government has created the problem by not enforcing the immigration laws, so they should help pay the cost," he insists.
Mr. Bowden estimates the federal court ruling will cost Texas schools an extra 100 million in the 1980-81 school year. In Houston, for example, schools are predicting a 5 percent increase in the local tax rate to pay for more bilingual teachers and additional school buses to cope with the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 increase in students this fall.
The statewide cost figure is based on a study commissioned by the Texas attorney general's office in January, which estimated there are about 111,000 "undocumented" school-age children in Texas. No one is certain exactly how many illegal alien children are in the state. The Gulf Coast Legal Foundation calls the estimate by the attorney general's office "very inflated."
"The biggest problem is not one of just dollars, but of finding adequate staff and space to accommodate these children," assesses Bowen. He said there is a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers in Texas and adds that many schools many face "severe overcrowding" this fall as a result of the ruling.