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.