Illegal Alien Schoolchildren:

Issues in Estimating State-by-State Costs

GAO-04-733: Published: Jun 21, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 21, 2004.

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Donna M. Heivilin
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In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that states and school districts cannot deny education to illegal alien children residing here. Issues in estimating the costs of providing education to them are of interest because (1) policy discussions concerning illegal immigration often focus on cost impacts; (2) potential costs are borne mostly at the state and local levels; and (3) the Congress could authorize federal reimbursement for benefits provided to illegal aliens, based on estimated state costs or numbers of illegal aliens. The foreign-born population is growing and is concentrated in certain states; the illegal immigrant component is thought to be substantial. Concerns about education costs may reflect "squeezed" state and local budgets, rising school enrollments, and overcrowded schools. To address the potential for estimating the costs of educating illegal alien schoolchildren, this report (1) identifies major government sources of relevant data, (2) describes a Census Bureau plan for developing new information, and (3) outlines costestimation approaches. GAO provided a draft of this report to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Census Bureau. The agencies informed GAO they had no formal comments.

Current government information is not sufficient to directly estimate the state-by-state costs of educating illegal alien schoolchildren. Although a variety of data are available, no government source estimates the numbers of illegal alien schoolchildren for most or all states. Specifically, states and local areas record data on school enrollment and costs but not on immigration status. In response to GAO's survey, a few states estimated costs of educating illegal alien children, based partly on assumptions. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) maintains enrollment and cost data--but has no information on immigration status. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed state-by-state estimates of the illegal alien population, but the estimates do not break out age groups and are subject to methodological limitations. The Census Bureau is developing a plan to estimate the size of the resident illegal alien population, indirectly by age group and state. This new information might help in developing state-by-state estimates of the number of school-age illegal alien children. However, the plan does not specify the age groups to be estimated, faces technical challenges, and depends upon future funding. Overall, it is too early to evaluate the Census Bureau's plan. The simplest approach to estimating the costs of educating illegal alien children is to multiply average current per pupil expenditures by the estimated number of illegal alien schoolchildren separately for each state. At present, government information is insufficient for developing reliable estimates based on this approach. If the Census Bureau's plan proves successful, relevant data would be available by 2007-09. Taking account of cost determinants such as variation in local area expenditures, student needs, and school capacity requires additional data.

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