Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 30, 1999
As school bells ring across the country this fall, we are hearing a lot about overcrowded schools and severely strained public education budgets. A new report from the Department of Education indicates the reason why - a dramatic increase in the school-age population.
President Clinton is using the report to call for more federal funding of education. Unfortunately, the report, "The Baby Boom Echo: No End in Sight," as well as most of the media coverage of the issue, misses the point: the growth in the school-age population is a direct consequence of recent immigration, not the result of baby boomers' kids entering school.
While the report barely mentions immigration, there is really no debate among demographers who study the issue. Official Census Bureau statistics, estimates done by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as other research show that recent immigration is reason for the growth in the school-age population.
The facts are actually quite straightforward. In 1998 there were 52 million school-age children (5 to 17), roughly 8 million of whom were either immigrants themselves or the child of an immigrant mother who had arrived since 1965, when the current immigration wave began. We know this because the Current Population Survey, a kind of mini-census taken each month by the Census Bureau, asks respondents if they are immigrants, when they arrived, and if their parents were immigrants. With this data, it is a very simple matter to estimate the impact of recent immigration on public schools.
The Department of Education's report shows that the number of students in public school has grown by about 7 million since the early 1980s. Therefore, recent immigrants and their children account for all the increase in the number of students in school.
Of course, immigration does not explain rising enrollment in every single school district in the country. But, the national increase in the number of children in school is, without question, a direct consequence of recent immigration.
Perhaps the Clinton administration and the Department of Education are unaware of these simple demographic facts. It seems much more likely, however, that they point to the "baby-boom echo" and not the real cause because they are reluctant to call attention to immigration's impact.
The administration may fear that the American people would be unwilling to spend significantly more money on education if they knew that recent immigration was the reason. The fact is, these children are here to stay and it is clearly in the long-term interest of our country to educate them. But concern over public reaction does not justify issuing a misleading report about the causes of overcrowding in public schools.
This country needs a rational debate about how to improve public education. It also needs a rational debate about the wisdom of allowing 800,000 to 900,000 legal immigrants and several hundred thousand illegal aliens into the country each year. This surely has significant implications for public schools, especially in many urban districts that are already straining to meet the needs of the students in their care.
But, no matter how one feels about education or immigration, the public good is not well served by the kind of information coming out of the Department of Education.