Texas must provide free public education to illegal alien children, at least for now, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. ruled yesterday.

Granting an emergency, request by lawyers for the children, Powell said, "I conclude that the balance of harms weighs heavily on the side of the children, certainly in those school districts where the ability of the local schools to provide education will not be threatened."

U.S. District Court Judge Woodrow Seals on July 21 struck down a 1975 Texas law that prohibited the use of state funds to educate alien children, but that ruling was stayed last month by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pending a decision. Powell's order set aside the appeals court's stay.

Seals' ruling was based on a finding that the 1975 law, unique to Texas, violated the equal-protection rights of illegal alien children. The law allows such children to attend public schools if tuitions are paid, but the trial court found that the tuitions are too expensive for illegal alien families.

Texas authorities estimate that some 120,000 illegal alien children reside in the state. Seals rejected the figure, saying 20,000 was a more realistic estimate.