Texas officials said yesterday that they will appeal a federal judge's ruling overturning a state law that effectively barred many illegal aliens from attending the state's public schools.
The 1975 measure allowed local school districts to refuse to admit illegal-alien children, or to charge tuition of as much as $160 a month for them to attend public schools.
In a decision handed down Monday in Houston, U.S. District Court Judge Woodrow Seals -- said the state code, believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation -- violated the Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantees of equal protection under the law.
But yesterday, state Attorney General Mark White said the ruling, if it stands, will place a heavy financial burden on the state and hinder its "ability to provide quality education to many of the documented aliens" -- mostly Mexicans -- "already here."
He said the decision could add from 40,000 to 110,000 children to his state's public school rolls at an annual cost of $200 million.
"We're already having problems finding enough bilingual teachers to work with the children who have Spanish as their first language," he said, adding that the decision "threatens to undermine our whole bilingual educational programs."
White and others in the state governments are angered by what they perceived as a federal double standard.
"The Justice Department is accusing the state of not assuming its constitutional responsibilities," he said, "but it's the federal government through its failure to enforce its own immigration laws, that has allowed this problem to develop."
Hispanic leaders nationwide yesterday attacked White's decision to ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Seals' decision.
"It's the Alamok mentality," said Ruben Bonilla, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights organization regarded by many as the Hispanic community's NAACP.
"The . . . decision indicates that Texas still wants to keep the Mexicans out and still wants to deny educational opportunity to children just because they are noncitizens who came here because their parents needed work," Bonilla said.
White and other Texas officials deny that charge.
The Texas debate speaks to a larger issue: Namely, what responsibility does the federal government bear for illegal aliens and other noncitizens?
School districts in the Washington area and other parts of the country have said that illegal-alien children have the right to a free public education.
District school board officials said yesterday that Washington has no citizenship requirements for students in public schools.
Last year, the Montgomery County School Board attempted to make diplomatic employes pay public-school tuition for their children, but the Maryland Board of Education blocked the effort.
Virginia places no restrictions on illegal aliens in its public schools, according to state and federal officials.
New York City, long a magnet for illegal aliens, says that as long as the children "live in the city, we don't ask any questions," according to Bob Terte, a spokesman for the city's public schools.
California prohibits its public schools from using citizenship requirements to restrict admission, according to federal officials.
Still, Hispanic leaders are concerned that a defeat for them in Texas could influence other states to adopt laws limiting a state's obligation to illegal aliens.
"Many of the undocumented aliens here with children have a burning desire to become a part of the American mainstream," Bonilla said. "They can never do that without an education."