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Education Bulk of Immigration Costs, Fla. Says

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Every month for the past four years, an average of 1,016 foreign-born students have entered the Dade County, Fla., school system.

In neighboring Broward County, each month brings an average of almost 500 foreign-born students into the schools.

The cost of educating many of these children represents a large share of the $1.5 billion the state of Florida is seeking from the federal government in a lawsuit filed last month.

Florida is the first of several states, including California and Arizona, to go to court to try to force the federal government, which has sole responsibility for immigration laws, to bear the costs of its policies.

A study put together by Florida officials to support their suit provides a look at the kinds of expenses schools across the country are experiencing as they cope with a continuing influx of legal and illegal immigrants.

Since 1989, according to the study by Gov. Lawton Chiles's office and the Florida Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations, the fiscal impact to the state of education for immigrant students has totaled $3.3 billion.

In fiscal 1993 alone, the study shows, the state spent an estimated $751 million on all services to immigrants. Education represented more than 70 percent of that amount, with the state expending $517.6 million on education programs and another $24 million on school capital costs.

Still, a close analysis of the Florida study underscores how hard it is to get a handle on the politically explosive issue of immigration costs.

The accuracy of the state figures is unclear, for example, because they are based in part on estimates of a population that is unlikely to admit it is in the United States illegally.

Moreover, according to state and local sources, the statewide education statistics were based to a great extent on just the experience of Dade and Broward counties in south Florida.

Special Programs Provided

Long a haven for newcomers from Latin America and the Caribbean, Dade County has experienced a huge influx of immigrants ever since the Mariel exodus from Cuba in the early 1980's.

The influx has rarely subsided. But its impact on the schools has intensified in the past few years with the arrival of many people fleeing war and social upheaval, chiefly from Nicaragua and Haiti.

"How many school boards have to worry about the Administration invading Haiti?'' observed David Arnett, the district's director of legislative and labor relations. "That is an issue that would impact on student enrollment.''

As of the end of February, Dade County had 76,103 foreign-born students--slightly more than one-fourth of its student population.

Not all of those students require special services. Some have been in the system long enough to be acclimated, while others may have been fluent in English upon arrival.

A total of 44,659 K-12 students were classified as having limited English proficiency.

In addition to English-as-a-second-language instruction, Dade County offers several academic programs for non-native speakers.

Curriculum content in the home language includes instruction in mathematics, science, social studies, and computers for students who speak little or no English, explained Mercedes Toural, the executive director of bilingual education for the district.

The district also provides a home-language-arts program, primarily for elementary students.

To respond to the influx of students from war-torn and economically devastated nations who have little or no formal schooling, the county has added a program called the Project New Beginning Academy. In it, students of middle and high school age are given intensive instruction in basic-literacy skills, English, math, and computing. Many of the children also require psychological counseling and other costly services, Ms. Toural said.

Detailed Analysis Difficult

Operating expenses for Dade County foreign-born students are projected at $311 million for this school year, according to Stanley Corces, the assistant superintendent for budget management.

Of that amount, the federal government provided $10.8 million.

Building permanent facilities for the additional student population would cost about $282 million at today's prices, based on an aggregate for the past dozen years, Mr. Corces added.

But analyzing the costs in any greater detail is difficult, he noted. For one thing, the district's accounting system was not designed to answer such questions.

In addition, the district is legally barred from asking foreign students about their immigration status. As a result, when children are assigned to certain programs, such as special education, they are not identified by country of origin.

Nevertheless, Mr. Corces said he is confident of his estimates, which he derived by multiplying the district's cost per pupil by the number of foreign-born students, and then subtracting fixed costs for such expenses as maintenance.

In establishing his formula, he assumed that the students would be distributed fairly evenly across the spectrum of school programs.

"The 74,000 didn't walk in the door the last year or two,'' Mr. Corces said. "Many of them probably already speak English.''

Broward County, meanwhile, estimates that it has spent $175 million for services to new immigrants since 1989--a figure that rises to $320 million when continuing services and facilities for foreign-born and L.E.P. students are added.

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