THE SUPREME COURT recently heard arguments in a case testing the right of the state of Texas to deny free public education to the children of illegal aliens. This question, though interesting both legally and socially, may have seemed remote to residents of the metropolitan area. But it is of critical personal interest to thousands of families who live in Prince George's County where a similar policy is in effect. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that as many as 8,000 families of undocumented aliens live in Prince George's County, and the number is growing. The most recent immigrants have fled the chaos of El Salvador and either came without proper visas or remain on expired papers.

What, if anything, should American taxpayers be expected to provide for these people and, in particular, for their children? In an ideal world, a full range of social services--a floor of protection, as the president would say--would be available to all persons residing in the United States. We may not be able to afford that. And we do not, in fact, provide services such as health care, unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps and subsidized housing to those who, after all, are in this country in violation of our laws. But does free public education for their children fall within this category of discretionary benefits available only to those with certain legal status? Or is it so absolutely necessary that all children, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to receive it? This is the question the Supreme Court is now considering in the Texas case. Prince George's County is one of a handful of jurisdictions around the country that is pursuing a policy similar to that attempted in Texas. Children of undocumented aliens are excluded from school unless they pay non-resident's tuition--over $2,000 a year. In justification of this policy, the school board refers to recent court cases holding that the state is not obliged to provide a free university education to persons not actually domiciled in the state. But an easy distinction can be made between higher education and mandatory public school education at the elementary and secondary level. Other jurisdictions with large alien populations, such as California, New York and Florida, have no such exclusionary laws and provide free edu- cation for all children actually living within their borders.

Whether or not this is legally required is for the Supreme Court to decide. But such a policy is both compassionate and in the interest of the state itself. What possible good can be achieved by excluding children from school for a reason that is beyond their control and not their fault when they will probably be with us for the rest of their lives? Doesn't it make sense to prepare them for life in this country and to start doing so as soon as possible?

The Texas law has been put on hold until the Supreme Court decides its constitutionality. At the very least, Prince George's should follow suit.