National Data | Immigrants Blindsiding U.S. Public Schools
September 06, 2006, 05:00 AM
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"A summer's planning can fall apart when we suddenly have hundreds of new students." So complained John Harper, superintendent of a suburban Chicago school district. Harper is not alone: public school districts throughout the country are facing unexpectedly large enrollments. [ In Schools Across U.S., the Melting Pot Overflows, By Sam Dillon New York Times, August 27, 2006]

Demographers attribute the current K-12 enrollment bulge to the baby-boom "echo" as well as immigration. But this begs the question: why are actual K-12 enrollments so much larger than projections based on official population and immigration figures?

The gap has been enormous. In projections published last year, the Department of Education said that public school enrollment would increase by 11,000 students between 2002 (the latest year of data available at the time) and 2003. But actual 2003 enrollments came in 339,000 above 2002's level – more than 30 times the projected rise.

In the same report Federal educrats said public school enrollment would grow by about 150,000 per year over the entire 2003 to 2014 period, reaching 50.0 million in 2014.

If 2003's projection debacle is a sign of things to come, however, that will be laughably low.

Absent some demographic catastrophe, it should be easy to project enrollment of the baby-boom echo children at least two to three years out. After all, the future students are already born and counted in the U.S. population figures used to estimate enrollments.

But immigrant children are the wild cards. Legal immigrants may have entered after the projections were made. Illegals may have been here but not counted.

Then there are U.S.-born children of immigrants. They represent an even larger burden than foreign-born students. Here are the shares of school-age children with immigrant parents in 1970 and 2000:

All immigrant children: 1970: 6 percent 2000: 19 percent
U.S.-born: 1970: 5 percent 2000: 14 percent
Foreign-born: 1970: 2 percent 2000: 5 percent
  [From The New Demography of America's Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act , Urban Institute, PDF]

Public schools cannot turn away immigrants, no matter what their legal status, because of the Supreme Court's decree in Plyler vs. Doe. Yet illegals are underrepresented in U.S. schools. About 1.5 percent of elementary school students and 2.8 percent of secondary school students are foreign-born illegals. More schoolchildren have illegal immigrant parents: 5 percent in elementary schools and 4 percent in secondary schools.

As to why illegal immigrant children are under-educated, the Urban Institute offers this:

"Undocumented [a.k.a. illegal] parents may be wary of interacting with institutions such as public schools owing to fear of deportation or other immigration-related consequences…..While all children – including undocumented children – have a right to attend public schools, undocumented children may also be fearful of schools and other institutions." [The New Demography of America's School, P.]

The Federal government feels their pain: The Office of Migrant Education  (funded in the No Child Left Behind Act) pays recruiters to find, enroll, and buy school supplies for erstwhile reluctant illegal immigrant children.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.