As American families prepare to go back to school this fall, our schools are facing their largest enrollments in history. Approximately 53 million elementary and secondary students will enter classrooms this year, while colleges and universities are expecting a record 15.1 million.
This trend marks the beginning of a steady and dramatic increase in the number of school-age children in the United States during the 21st century. By the year 2100, our schools -from pre-kindergarten to college -will enroll approximately 94 million children and young adults, an increase of more than 42 million during the century. The students in school this year include the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1948 and 1975 who came of age at the end of the last century. During the Baby Boom, the birth rate peaked and then dropped. But the Census Bureau projects that the coming decades will be characterized by a steady growth in the number of children, with the result that school enrollments will rise unabated as well. These are among the findings of a new report by the U.S. Department of Education released this week, “Growing Pains: The Challenge of Overcrowded Schools is Here to Stay.” This report, based on U.S. Census data and data from the National Center for Education Statistics, identifies several challenges for our public schools. Local communities need to renovate, modernize, and build schools. Overcrowded classrooms and schools in disrepair are already a problem in communities throughout the United States. Three quarters of all public schools reported that in the last school year they needed more funds for repairs, renovations or modernization in order to bring facilities into overall good condition. Many of these buildings, which were constructed on average 42 years ago, have severe structural problems, such as cracked foundations, leaking roofs, and residue from asbestos and lead paint. Some 36% of schools are using portable classrooms because their buildings are not large enough to accommodate the children in their communities. At the same time, just as enrollments are reaching an all time high, we know that small classes, particularly in the early grades, are essential to improved academic performance. Students who receive personal attention from a quality teacher in a small class get off to a stronger start at the beginning of their academic careers. Of course, smaller classes require more teachers and more classroom facilities. As well, our public schools will need an additional 2.2 million teachers in the next decade to meet rising enrollments and replace retiring teachers. Today, a large proportion of classroom teachers are in their mid-40s and early 50s. Because they began their careers during the late 1960s and early 1970s, these teachers will near retirement just when schools will need more teachers than ever before. Already, school districts need additional teachers to reduce class size in the lower grades and reduce overcrowding in high schools, where the greatest enrollment increases will be felt in the next 10 years. This fall as our kids are going back to school, three key proposals will be before Congress. First, the President has proposed $25 billion in tax advantaged bonds for local communities needing to build and improve school facilities. A bipartisan bill based on this proposal has the support of 226 members of Congress, but so far the Congressional leadership has not allowed the Congress to consider the bill. In addition, the Congress will be considering the President’s request to continue the national commitment to hire 100,000 teachers to reduce class size, and a comprehensive national investment of $1 billion to recruit, retain, and train quality teachers. These initiatives -improving school facilities, reducing class size, and investing in teachers -are essential if we are to continue improving our nation’s schools. They are not only sound public policy, but also wise investments in our nation’s future.
(The full text of the Education Department Report, “Growing Pains: The Challenge of Overcrowded Schools is Here to Stay,” released Aug. 21 can be seen at http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/08-2000/0821.html) Frank S. Holleman III is Deputy Secretary U.S. Department of Education