Jammed Southwest schools cry 'help'

While elementary and secondary school enrollments decline nationally, classrooms are bursting at the seams in many US Southwest border communities. Mexican immigration, both legal and illegal, is boosting enrollments faster than school administrators are able to raise funds for new construction.

Added to the problem at this time of year is the migrant farm-worker population that drifts south for the winter months, further crowding public schools along the border.

"We don't have enough space, or enough teachers. We can't afford to keep growing like this without some help," says Tony Garcia, superintendent of the Rio Grande City, Texas, independent school district.

Public schools along the Mexican border are directly affected by US immigration policy, and educators in that region increasingly are looking to Washington for assistance.

To date, however, they have had little success. Congress recently voted down legislation that would have provided federal grants to schools along the US-Mexico border with sizable numbers of Mexican immigrant students.

Still, the flow of Mexicans into the United States continues at a level far above the legal quota, due in large part to an ineffective border patrol.

"Schools along the border carry a load, and it's a problem created by our national immigration policy," says an aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, sponsor of the bill to help border schools.

The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy will conclude a two-year study with policy recommendations to Congress and the President next March, but a spokesman says no suggestions will be made as to how the federal government might help particular regions cope with rising immigrant population. "That would involve just about every community in the country in some way, and we just couldn't cope with that," she said.

Texas public schools are under added pressure this year because of a federal court ruling that has forced them to open their doors to the children of illegal aliens. While for the state as a whole the number of illegal alien children enrolling in public schools has been far less than expected -- about one- 10th the number some had projected -- impact has been significant along the border.

In Brownsville, about 700 "undocumented" children have enrolled this year, making an already crowded school system worse. "We build portable classrooms at about the rate of one every 14 or 15 days," says local school superintendent Raul Besteiro. "We don't want to grow at this rate because it is diminishing the quality of education for everyone," he say.

Typically, expanding enrollment would be good news for a school district. It would increase federal and state funds based on average daily attendance, and would be indicative of a healthy local economy.

While border school districts are compensated by the state and federal governments for rising attendance, enrollments are expanding faster than the local tax base in many communities.

"If this was growth in the typical way, you would see new businesses and housing subdivisions. Then, a local tax base could support the growth," explains Rodney Cathey, superintendent of schools in McAllen. While Mexican immigrants certainly add to the tax base, most are poor by US standards and tend to expand the labor force faster than the community's economic wealth, Mr. Cathey says.

For needed new construction, most of these border school districts must seek voter-approved bond issues. But the prospects for new bond measures now are dim. High interest rates have made bond issues too expensive for many communities, and some educators say the perception that the bonds are only for the benefit of illegal aliens is creating taxpayer resistance.

The problem is compounded because border school districts are, on average, relatively poor to begin with. "The school districts are in economically depressed areas. The classrooms are crowded. More rooms are needed, but the money is not there," noted a 1979 study by the Organization of US Border Cities and Counties.

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