School Overcrowding

Immigration is overwhelming school systems.

“The level of immigration is so massive, it’s choking urban schools ...It’s bad enough when you have desperate kids with U.S. backgrounds who require massive resources. In come kids with totally different needs, and it creates crushing burdens on urban schools.”
-David W.Stewart,
author of Immigration and Education: The Crisis and Opportunities

The U.S. school-aged population has reached an all-time high of 55 million. Between 1990 and 2000, enrollment increased by 14 percent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the size of the student body will almost double by 2100. Yet without school-age immigrants (about 250,000 a year) and the children of immigrants (about 725,000 a year), school enrollment would not be rising at all.

The share of students in the U.S. who are immigrants or the children of immigrants has tripled in the past 30 years; in 1970, they were only 6.5 percent of the student body. Today, one in five students has at least one foreign-born parent. In California, almost half of the students starting school are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

As a result of this immigration-driven population growth, about 14 percent of schools exceed their capacity by six to 25 percent, and eight percent exceed it by more than 25 percent. To alleviate overcrowding, more than one-third of schools use portable classrooms, and one-fifth hold classes in temporary instructional space, such as cafeterias and gyms.

The problem has become severe enough that there is now a federal Bilingual/Immigrant State Grant program to assist school systems that experience large increases in their student population due to immigration. This program awards about $700 million a year to affected districts (National Association of Bilingual Education).

Immigration is a drain on badly needed education resources.

Rather than being used to improve the quality of education for current students, communities’ limited tax dollars are instead being diverted to build new schools to accommodate population growth and to meet the special needs of immigrant children. Including special programs such as bilingual education, which can cost nearly 50 percent more than regular schooling, immigration costs the taxpayers over $24 billion a year in education costs.

The growth in federal grants for special language programs has more than doubled, from $157 million in 1995 to $460 million in 2002.

In California, funding for the state’s 1.3 million limited-English students has increased to $319 million (from $108 million in 1986). Funding for low-income students (often blacks) decreased to $64 million from $93 million while the number of low-income students grew to 1.9 million from one million. Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta observes, “It’s a sad situation for schools right now. We’ve got extremely scarce resources. We have people fighting over bread crumbs. And we have groups with equally strong and important needs for which society isn’t willing to provide. When the stakes are like this, the fight only gets more and more vicious.”

By a five-to-four decision in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plyler v. Doe that the equal protection provision of the Constitution's 14th Amendment requires public schools to admit illegal alien children, on the presumption that denial of public education to children whose parents brought them illegally to the United States is not a rational response to states' concerns about illegal immigration.1 The opinion, however, was based on specific circumstances that could change and it did not apply to education beyond mandatory public schooling.

Mass immigration poses daunting educational challenges.

The growth in the limited-English-proficiency student population to high immigrant drop-out rates to gaps in teacher training all pose serious challenges to school systems that are already struggling to meet basic education challenges, such as raising academic achievement levels.

The distance between native education and immigrant education is growing; the gap between the average years of schooling for immigrants and for natives has quadrupled in the last twenty-five years. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, over 90 percent of the recent immigrants come from non-English speaking countries; in 1998, there were 3.2 million public school students with no proficiency in English, almost twice as many as there were in 1990.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2000 that, due to immigration, the U.S. had lost its worldwide lead in high school graduation rates. Four decades ago, the high school graduation rate in the U.S. was 80 percent, the highest in the OECD. Now, with immigration rates much higher, it has dropped to 70 percent, lower than the graduation rate in at least 16 other countries.

Foreign students are taking places from American graduate students and Ph.D.s.

There is a glut of science Ph.D.s coming out of our graduate schools (about 22 percent more than are needed); more than a third of them are foreign students. Most of the increase in Ph.D.s is due to aliens, an estimated 50 percent of whom remain in the country. By flooding the job market, they depress working wages for all “post-docs.”

Sources: U.S. Department of Education; National Center for Education Statistics; Urban Institute, Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Children in U.S. Secondary Schools, 2001; “The Future of the Ph.D.”, Science, October 6, 1995; “The Unfair Burden,” Florida Governor’s Office, March 1994; “The Cost of English Acquisition Programs,” READ Perspectives, Fall 2001.

[1] Plyler v. Doe also found that there is no fundamental right to education, that Texas had not proved its argument that admission of illegal alien children to public schools would damage the educational opportunities provided to U.S. citizen children, and that there was no evidence that the U.S. government seriously intended to deport the parents of the illegal alien children. The Court could reverse the ruling if these circumstances were to change or if Congress were to make the exclusion of these students explicit by legislation.

Updated 10/02