By Ben Feller
The Associated Press / June 2, 2005
WASHINGTON — A record 49.6 million students filled U.S. schools in 2003, breaking a mark set by their baby-boomer parents and giving educators a new generation of challenges.
The growth is largely due to all the children who were born in the late 1940s to early 1960s and have since become parents themselves, the Census Bureau said yesterday. Rising immigration played a part, too, in pushing enrollment past the 1970 record of 48.7 million.
"You could have predicted this back in 1970 when we had all those kids," said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, which assesses population trends. "We knew they were going to have kids of their own. We have this classic echo effect going on."
Even if it isn't surprising, the record tally of students in the first 12 grades poses steep challenges for schools: recruiting teachers, helping children who don't speak English, keeping class sizes manageable and coming up with enough financial aid for college students.
In population rings outside urban areas and in Western states such as Nevada and California, the growth has been intense, increasing demands on schools.
"They just really don't have the fiscal capacity to match this," said Scott Young, senior policy specialist in education for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In districts outside Atlanta, Houston and Las Vegas, enrollment has soared more than 20 percent in the past five years, said Bruce Hunter, who directs lobbying for the American Association of School Administrators. His group has identified more than 400 such districts.
"The pressures are to stay up with it, to hire, to get the classrooms staffed, to find quality principals," Hunter said. "But the joy of it is you have this tremendous opportunity, because the communities have a real clear stake, so you have vibrant school systems."
In other parts of the country, such as the upper Midwest, the school population has declined in some counties, Mather said. "Some of those kids are driving an hour or two on a bus to get to school because there aren't enough kids to keep local schools open," he said.
Seattle, Portland and some other urban districts are experiencing flat or declining enrollments as families leave for more affordable places to live. Enrollment in Seattle Public Schools fell from a peak of nearly 100,000 in the early 1960s to a low of 41,000 in 1989; although enrollment has rebounded to about 46,000, the district expects enrollment to be flat or decline slightly over the next decade.
Immigration has helped fuel the national boom. Twenty-two percent of students had at least one foreign-born parent, including 91 percent of Asian children and 66 percent of Hispanic youngsters.
With the largest-ever high-school graduating class coming soon, colleges are being pressed to provide capacity for everyone while keeping tuition affordable.
"These kids are coming along at a time when, unlike the baby boomers, their chances of a middle-class life without college are almost nil," said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "It's going to drive higher-education policy over the next few years. This is a huge challenge."
Seattle Times staff reporter Sanjay Bhatt contributed to this report.
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