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U.S. Says K-12 Enrollment Will Set Record High in '97

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Warning that proposed congressional cuts in education spending "could not have come at a worse time," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has unveiled statistics showing that school enrollment will hit record-high levels before the end of the century.

Mr. Riley outlined the projections at a meeting last month with President Clinton and representatives of education groups.

He predicted the number of K-12 students in the U.S. public and private schools would surpass the baby-boom generation's 1971 peak of 51 million students with 53 million by 1997. The total is expected to reach 55 million by 2002.

In contrast, Mr. Riley noted, Congress has mapped out $36 billion in federal education cuts for the next seven years. (See related story, page 26.)

"I have to question the members of Congress who would put less-important priorities ahead of arming our children against ignorance and mediocrity by giving them a good start in life," Mr. Riley said in a statement. Soaring enrollment paired with cuts in education funding, he warned, would create an "education gap."

Jeffrey P. Carter, a Baltimore elementary school teacher who attended the White House meeting said educators there urged President Clinton to veto cuts in the federal education budget, especially in light of the new statistics. Mr. Carter, whose classes average about 32 students, said overcrowding combined with a lack of resources can lead to student frustration--especially for students who are already at risk.

"My concern is that we would lose an entire generation of people in the cracks," he said.

More Students, More Money

The Department of Education also released some good news last month: Its annual "Condition of Education" report revealed improvements in several key areas. Among them were increases in math and science test scores and lower dropout rates.

But Mr. Riley used those results to argue that Congress should not stymie such progress with funding cuts, especially in light of the projected enrollment increase.

According to the department projections, enrollment during the late 1990s will surpass the surge the country experienced from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The number of public elementary and secondary students will climb from 45 million in 1995 to 49 million in 2002, the figures show.

Public high schools can expect an 11 percent increase in students over the next seven years, while public K-8 enrollment will swell by 8 percent. Private schools can expect similar growth.

If a trend reported last week by the U.S. Census Bureau holds up, many of those new students likely will be immigrants. From 1970 to 1994 the percentage of people in the United States who were foreign-born nearly doubled, to 8.7 percent from 4.8 percent, federal researchers said.

Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that although enrollment trends vary from district to district, school officials should heed the Education Department numbers when developing long-term plans.

To avoid turmoil, he said, educators should seek flexible responses to enrollment growth. For example, he said, districts might consider using more temporary or portable classrooms.

Yet, in one of the country's most crowded districts--300,000-student Dade County, Fla.--schools that already employ such fixes as portables and flexible schedules are bracing for the next wave.

Henry Fraind, an assistant superintendent, said that while enrollment in the Miami-area district grows 3 percent to 4 percent a year, schools are receiving less money because of inflation and federal and state education cuts.

To meet the increased staffing, maintenance, and construction needs that the projected enrollment surge will bring, he said, "someone eventually is going to have to fund the schools."

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