School-Age Population

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In the last few years, a good deal of attention has been focused on the dramatic increases in enrollment experienced by many school districts across the country. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that the number of children in public schools has grown by nearly 8 million in the last two decades. All observers agree that this growth has strained the resources of many schools districts. While it is sometimes suggested that most of the increase is the result of the children of baby boomers reaching school age, data from the CPS indicate that "the baby boom echo," as it has sometimes been called, does not explain the growth in the number of children in public schools.

Table 7 shows that there are 8.6 million school-age children (ages 5 to 17) of immigrants in the United States. The children of Mexican immigrants account for 3.2 million, or more than one-third. The children of immigrants account for such a large percentage of the school-age population because a higher proportion of immigrant women are in their childbearing years and immigrants tend to have more children than natives. This is especially true for Mexican immigrants. Of the 3.2 million school-age children of Mexican immigrants, 2.9 million are immigrants who arrived after 1982 or the U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants who arrived after 1982. Thus, by itself Mexican immigration accounted for more than a third of the national increase in the size of the school-age population since the early 1980s.

Impact on School-Age Population by State. In some states the impact of Mexican immigration is even larger. Table 7 shows that Mexican immigration has had a very substantial impact on the size of the school-age population in states such as California, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. Of course, a dramatic increase in enrollment may not create a problem for public education if tax revenue increases proportionately. But the average annual income of Mexican-headed households is $35,024, or only 64.7 percent of the $54,110 for native households. Since tax payments generally reflect income levels, the tax contributions made by immigrant families are almost certainly not enough to entirely offset the costs they impose on public schools. This is especially likely to be the case because Mexican households have twice as many school-age children on average as do native households.27 The added cost of providing services to students with limited English language skills is also likely to strain the resources of many school systems.

The absorption capacity of American public education is clearly an important issue that needs to be taken into account when formulating a sensible immigration policy. Failure to consider this question may have significant consequences for schools in a number of states.


End Note

27 The March 2000 CPS indicates that the average household headed by a Mexican immigrant has 1.13 school-age children compared to 0.48 for the average native-headed household. While these numbers may seem low, it should be remembered that these figures include households headed by the elderly and young single people, who generally have no children living with them.