School & District Management

Boomers’ Record Enrollment Matched in 1999

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 28, 2001 3 min read
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Enrollment in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools in 1999 equaled that of the record high set in 1970, during the huge population swell known as the baby boom, a school enrollment report released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

But the makeup of today’s students is much more racially and ethnically diverse than it was in 1970, when school enrollment in the United States peaked at 49 million, the study found.

For example, while 15 percent of the nation’s students in grades 1 through 12 are now Hispanic, only 6 percent were in 1972. Currently, one in five students has at least one foreign-born parent. That includes the 5 percent of students who are immigrants themselves, the report states.

For More Information

The report, “School Enrollment in the United States—Social and Economic Characteristics of Students,” from the U.S. Census Bureau. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Titled “School Enrollment in the United States—Social and Economic Characteristics of Students,” the report is based on data collected by the Census Bureau in its Current Population Survey for October 1999.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the school enrollment record, set in the early 1970s, was shattered in 1996. But those figures included kindergarten enrollment; the Census report figures do not.

The findings confirm what educators already knew, either from experience or from demographic projections, representatives of national education organizations said last week. Still, the data, drawn from a statistically valid national sample, are likely to influence education policy discussions.

“The fact that we have a larger [school] population is going to really beg the question of ... having enough classrooms and facilities to accommodate the growing population,” said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. “It’s a problem now, and it’s going to get bigger.”

Information in the report about the impact of immigration on schools is also important for consideration by policymakers, suggested Michael D. Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

“We can’t ignore the fact that we have a large number of students coming from a non-English-speaking background,” he said. “The state and federal governments need to take a closer look at the population. We don’t want to hold these kids back academically. A language barrier is not a statement about how much they can learn.”

Separate figures released this month from the 2000 Census reinforce the picture of an increasingly diverse U.S. population. (“U.S. Census Underscores Diversity,” March 21, 2001.)

Baby Boomers’ Children

The enrollment report attributes the recent growth in the student population both to immigration and an increase in U.S. births, particularly as the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, had children of their own. Non-Hispanic white and African-American student growth is due mostly to an increase in births.

But the increase in Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander children has been caused primarily by immigration. The report says that 88 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander children and 65 percent of Hispanic children have a parent who was born in a country other than the United States.

Among the questions the Current Population Survey asked that the 2000 Census did not were whether students attended a public or private school, whether they had repeated a grade, and whether they attended college part time or full time, said Amie Jamieson, a Census Bureau statistician who co- wrote the new report. “You take all those things and look at them by characteristics,” she said, “and you get a pretty good picture of school-age children.”

For example, the survey found that about one-third of Hispanic and black students between 15 and 17 were enrolled below the grade most common for their age, while only one-quarter of non-Hispanic whites and Asian and Pacific Islander students of the same ages were in the same situation.

But Jorge Ruiz de Valasco, a research associate in the Urban Institute’s education policy center, noted that “the way the Census Bureau collects the data masks some of the things going on beneath the data.”

For instance, he said, the report’s finding that in 1999, 34 percent of Hispanics between 18 and 24 had not completed high school and were not enrolled fails to show how that statistic would be much higher if applied only to some Hispanic groups rather than averaged out over all of them.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Boomers’ Record Enrollment Matched in 1999


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