Equity & Diversity

Ed. Dept. Says Enrollment Nears Milestone

By Alyson Klein — May 30, 2008 3 min read
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Enrollment in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools is expected to reach 50 million for the first time in the nation’s history in 2009-10, the Department of Education reported last week.

The National Center for Education Statistics projected that each year from now through 2017, total public school enrollment will set records.

“Enrollment is projected to continue to grow to just over 54 million students in 2017,” Mark S. Schneider, the commissioner of the NCES, said at a May 29 news conference.

The center’s report, “The Condition of Education 2008,” also reveals a growing diversity within the school-age population.

The proportion of public school students who could be considered members of racial or ethnic minority groups jumped from 22 percent in 1972, to 31 percent in 1986, to 43 percent in 2006.

“This increase in minority enrollment largely reflects an increase in the percentage of Hispanic students,” Mr. Schneider said. In 1986, about 11 percent of the student population was Hispanic, while in 2006, the figure was 20 percent, the report says.

The commissioner dryly delivered highlights of the annual report, sticking closely to a written text and to PowerPoint slides. One audience member noted that the student-achievement data discussed in the report reveal that an achievement gap persists between minority-group members and white students. He asked the commissioner what should be done about that.

“Unfortunately, that is not my job,” Mr. Schneider responded. “My job is to document. We leave the policy prescriptions to others.”

Private School Decline

The report also found that the percentage of school-age children with one or more parents who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree has also soared over the past quarter-century. In 1979, 19 percent of students had a parent who had attained that level of education. By 2006, it was 35 percent.

The proportion of children enrolled in private schools declined from 1989, when such students made up 11 percent of children in kindergarten through 12th grade, to 2005, when private school students constituted 9 percent of the total nationally.

The report reveals that the number of school-age children who speak a language other than English at home has skyrocketed over the past two decades. In 1979, there were 3.8 million such students, or 9 percent of the total school-age population at the time, but by 2006, there were 10.8 million, which represented 20 percent. But the number of children ages 5 to 17 who speak English with difficulty as a proportion of the number who speak another language at home decreased from 34 percent in 1979 to 25 percent in 2006.

Approaching 50 Million Students

By the fall of 2009, the Department of Education projects, total K-12 public school enrollment in the United States will reach 50 million for the first time. An increase is projected each year through at least 2017.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Patricia Gandara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautioned that policymakers should be careful in interpreting those results. Students who are comfortable speaking English might still not be ready to use it as their primary language of instruction.

The numbers can tell “only a very, very small part of the story,” she said. Students who are able to communicate in English with their teachers and peers may not yet be ready to write a persuasive essay in English, for example, she said.

Special Education

The report also shows a slight, recent decline in the proportion of students receiving certain special education services. Since the passage in 1975 of what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the percentage of students ages 3 to 21 receiving special education services has increased nearly every year. But from the 2004-05 school year to the 2006-07 year, the percentage declined slightly, from 13.8 percent to 13.5 percent.

The decrease, though small, appeared somewhat more significant for students receiving services for specific learning disabilities, the proportion of whom fell from 6.1 percent of all students during the 2000-01 school year to 5.4 percent in 2006-07.

But that decline may be at least partly the result of new systems for classifying students, said Candace Cortiella, the director of the Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Marshall, Va., that works on behalf of students with disabilities.

For instance, before 1999, students with attention deficit disorder were often considered learning-disabled, she said. But, after the regulations for the 1997 congressional reauthorization of the IDEA were issued, students with attention deficit disorder were classified as having “other health impairments.” That category grew between 2000-01 and 2006-07, from 0.7 percent of students to 1.2 percent.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Says Enrollment Nears Milestone


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