National Data | Arizona's Next Move: Exposing Illegals' Education Costs

The much-exaggerated "show me your papers" aspect of Arizona's immigration law SB1070 is provoking national hysteria. But SB 1070 author, State Senator Russell Pearce, has another piece of legislation in the works that could ultimately be more devastating.

Senate Bill 1097 [PDF] will require public schools to identify and count students who are in the country illegally. The bill also requires Arizona's Department of Education to determine the cost of educating such students and to research the "adverse impact" of their enrollment.

This apparently unexceptionable goal has Hispanic activists hyperventilating—one describes it as "the next step in Operation Wetback 2010"—and they have reason to fear.

Pearce aims to expose what is arguably the most expensive of all federal unfunded mandates: illegal alien education. In Plyler v. Doe (1982) the Supreme Court "struck down a Texas statute denying funding for education to children who were illegal immigrants." By a 5-to-4 majority the Court ruled that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which reads: "No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Texas officials had argued that illegal immigrants were not "within the jurisdiction" of the state and could thus not claim protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren Burger supported the state's position in his dissenting opinion, and even Justice Brennan, in his majority opinion, admitted that "public education is not a 'right' granted to individuals by the Constitution."

Most legal scholars see Plyler v Doe as a naked usurpation of Congressional powers, an attempt to make up for the legislative branch's inability or unwillingness to deal with the illegal alien problem. It stands as a monument to judicial activism.

A very expensive monument: Public education is by far the largest expense state and local governments incur on behalf illegal aliens. The average low-income immigrant household—a category that includes illegal aliens and their U.S.-born children—receives an estimated $7,737 each year in kindergarten through grade 12 education services.

(Household data reflects the costs associated with U.S.-born children living in illegal alien households. This is perfectly reasonable since these children would not be in the country if their parents had not been allowed to enter and remain here illegally. Thus counting the cost of K-12 services provided to these children, as well as to their foreign-born siblings, allows for a full accounting the public education costs associated with illegal immigration.)

That $7,737 is more than twice the combined annual cost of Medicaid, welfare, and other means-tested benefits for such households ($2,957.) It also dwarfs the expense of providing them with police and fire protection ($2,198), transportation ($572), unemployment insurance ($488), and sewer and utilities ($411). [The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to State and Local Taxpayers, By Robert Rector, Congressional Testimony, May 17, 2007. PDF]

Children of illegal aliens (including those born in the U.S.) represented a remarkable 6.8% of total K-12 enrollment in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. [A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States, Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009] With total public school enrollment at 48.4 million, the illegal alien component is an estimated 3.3 million (6.8% of 48.4 million.)

How many of these children are in Arizona? We won't know for sure until school districts in that state have had a chance to implement Pearce's new law. But we can make an educated guess using published population estimates.

About 500,000 illegal aliens, or about 4.2% of all illegals in the U.S., live in Arizona according to Pew. Multiplying this percentage times the national illegal alien enrollment figure (3.3 million), we arrive at 138,600 as a reasonable estimate of public school enrollment attributable to illegal immigration in Arizona.

Using the average expenditure reported by the U.S. Department of Education for Arizona public schools—$7,610 per pupil—we calculate the illegal alien education tab to be $1.1 billion for Arizona. This is undoubtedly too conservative: it ignores the extraordinary costs associated with English language instruction and other services which illegals are far more likely to need than the "average" student.

In the context of the Federal budget, $1.1 billion may be a trivial amount. Not so at the local level. For perspective, local police departments in Arizona spent a total of $1.4 billion in 2006-07.

Pearce's proposed legislation contains no provisions for acting on the information it will unearth.

But by bringing home the extraordinary costs of illegal immigration, it makes further legislation politically unavoidable.

That's why Hispanic activists, and other immigration enthusiasts generally, prefer that Arizona taxpayers, like all Americans, are kept in ignorance,

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