Jennifer Wheary (Senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.). Newsday. 2/22/2005.

Failing city schools require dramatic action and urgent attention. That's the message from this past week's New York State Supreme Court ruling upholding the findings of a court-appointed panel that New York City schools require an additional $14.8 billion to meet students' basic educational needs.

While city and state officials negotiate and debate who's responsible for providing additional funding, an essential point goes ignored. The issue of under-funded, underachieving city schools is much more than a city or state debate. It is a national concern.

At stake is the future prosperity and vitality of an America increasingly made up of immigrants - the majority of whom get their start in urban schools.

The number of immigrants living in the United States is at an all-time high. While suburban immigrant populations have grown in recent years, 94 percent of the country's foreign-born population still lives in a city or major metro area. City schools are where immigrant families pursue opportunity and where the future of the nation's economy is being built.

As baby boomers age and fertility rates decline, immigrants are becoming an increasingly major part of the U.S. labor force. Without immigrants, the growth of the American economy and work force would grind to a halt. As a result, educating immigrant children is a national priority that will only grow more pressing in the years ahead.

The available U.S. work force grew an average of 2.6 percent per year in the 1970s, and an average of only 1.1 percent per year in the 1990s. It is projected to increase an average of just 0.6 percent per year between 2000-2030. Recent immigrants, one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the country, will be a large source of labor growth and a major part of the future work force. Estimates suggest that one-fourth of U.S. labor force growth over the next 20 years will come from children of Hispanic immigrants alone. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 2002-2012, the Hispanic work force will grow at a rate triple that of the rest of the work force.

The task of building a well-prepared future labor force falls disproportionately on our largest cities. Individuals in the five largest cities in America - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia - are twice as likely as the rest of the country to speak a language other than English at home. They are 2 1/2 times more likely to be foreign-born. Fifty-three percent of New York's children live in immigrant-headed households. More than 200 countries and 140 different languages are represented in the city's schools. Of New York's more than 1 million public school students, about 130,000 are learning English as a second language.

The median household income in our five largest cities is 15 percent lower than in the country as a whole, and the percentage of families living below the poverty level is double the national average. Under a system where school funding is so heavily tied to property taxes, the economic distress experienced in urban households creates crippling disparities between city and suburban schools. The end result is lower quality teachers, overcrowded classes and deteriorating educational quality for immigrant, urban students. Those who need the most help and whose success is vital to the nation's future face the greatest obstacles in getting a solid education.

If we want a labor force that is productive - not to mention a citizenry that has the capacity to build a stronger democracy - we have a responsibility to make sure that city schools do not lack billions of dollars each year.

This responsibility means recognizing that suburban and urban residents do not hold competing interests. It also means supporting more centralized systems for school financing, systems that will benefit suburban and city schools equally, and requiring that state capitals and the federal government shoulder new responsibilities. Urban schools must not be left on their own to handle a vital national challenge. We must find a more equitable way to give city schools the resources to help new generations of Americans succeed and prosper.

GRAPHIC: Photo - Jennifer Wheary