The number of students heading into America's classrooms this fall - 53 million - is at an all-time high, a result of a baby boomlet and a long-lasting wave of new immigrants.
But unlike previous spikes in the school-age population, this one promises to keep building. And as enrollment climbs, communities across the US not only will have to figure out how to provide seats for all, but also how to deliver a solid education to the most diverse student body ever.
"We have a century of [enrollment] growth ahead of us - a crescendo of children. Growth is the new and unwavering demographic constant," says Education Secretary Richard Riley, whose department released the new projections this week. "We cannot continue to apply temporary solutions to permanent, ongoing challenges."
In many places, the issue will force tough choices on where to allocate education dollars. How much money should go to attract and retain qualified teachers? How much for buildings? How much for improved student programs? How much - or whether - to fund options for students if failing schools don't improve?
In Los Angeles, half of the students in some classrooms won't have desks when schools open this fall. By 2006, 85,900 kids there won't have a place in school, if current trends persist. School officials say they will need 100 new schools in the next 10 years. Teachers say they need large pay hikes to stay in the classroom.
In Miami-Dade County, 84,000 students attended schools in portable classrooms last year. The school system would have to build one elementary school a month just to keep up with the influx of new immigrants.
Las Vegas has doubled its school enrollment in the past 10 years. Voters there in 1998 approved a $1 billion bond issue for 88 new schools to keep up with the increase.
But a pressing need for more schools is not the only construction challenge. Some $127 billion is needed nationwide to renovate existing schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. President Clinton is urging the Republican-controlled Congress to pass $25 billion in school-modernization bonds and $6.5 billion in school-renovation loans and grants. The GOP leadership, though, has not acted on the request, preferring an approach to federal funding that allows localities to set their own priorities for spending.
In addition, US schools must find 2.2 million new teachers to replace baby-boomer educators who will retire over the next 10 years.
The challenge is not acute in all parts of the country. School populations have declined in some rural states, such as Maine, Alabama, and Indiana.
But other states have seen explosive growth, and 13 can expect at least a 15 percent increase in the number of graduates from public high schools in the next decade, according to the US Department of Education. Nevada is witnessing the biggest surge, 65.7 percent, followed by Arizona, 40 percent; Florida, 27 percent; North Carolina, 26 percent; and California and Illinois, 20 percent.
The changing needs of students
The new pressure on public schools stems from more than the enrollment numbers. The new waves of students are expected, in some cases, to need different types of services from their schools. The number of Hispanic children in US public schools, for example, is expected to increase 60 percent over the next 20 years, from 7.9 million to 12.7 million.
Faced with pressing questions about how best to educate students, citizens in some bellwether states are making decisions via ballot initiative.
In California, Proposition 13, which launched the taxpayer revolt in 1978, slashed tax revenue to local governments by more than $6 billion. California's public school system, which had been one of the top-rated in the nation, sank to the bottom in student achievement, and some analysts attributed it to the dramatic changes in the way schools were funded.
Since then, state officials mandated a return to phonics-based language instruction and spent $4 billion to reduce class sizes in the early grades. In 1998, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz took on the state's bilingual-education program, after failing to sway legislators to abolish it. He put up the money to fund a ballot-initiative campaign to replace bilingual ed with English-immersion programs. The measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.
Last week, statewide tests signaled that California's 1.4 million limited-English students had made big gains in the two years the law has been in effect. Gains were especially strong in school districts that most fully embraced English immersion for Hispanic students.
"Our students learned English far more rapidly than I thought they could, and I've been a bilingual teacher and advocate for 25 years," says Ken Noonan, superintendent of schools for Oceanside Unified School District, just north of San Diego. Gains in Oceanside were the highest in the state, with reading scores in the elementary grades up 93 percent and math scores up 100 percent.
At the outset, Mr. Noonan had opposed Proposition 227, but says he felt obligated to uphold it once it became law. "We brought teachers together who had been teaching bilingually for years, and we explained to them what happened and why we had to change. There was a lot of distress in the room.... Many of them had master's degrees in bilingual education," he says. "In the end, it's thanks to those teachers that it worked. They're the heroes. They took a program of which they were skeptical and made it work because it is the law."
"English immersion doubled test scores in two years without spending a dollar," adds Mr. Unz.
An initiative similar to California's is on the ballot in Arizona this November, and grass-roots movements are under way in Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York, he adds.
Next, the voucher issue
This year, Californians will have an opportunity to tackle yet another controversial education issue. A new ballot initiative would give families the option of claiming $4,000 in tax credits to send their children to private schools. Teachers, who are fighting the proposition, say it would drain funds from public schools.
"L.A. is the front line of the fight to save public education," says Steve Weingarten, a spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles, the nation's second- largest teachers' local.
Nationwide, the debate over using public funds to send children to private schools continues to simmer. When offered a specific choice, 75 percent of Americans say they'd rather spend taxpayer money to improve public schools than to provide school vouchers, according to a poll released yesterday by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup Poll. Public support for vouchers peaked at 44 percent in 1996 and '97, and has now dropped to 39 percent, the pollsters say.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society