Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Changing Landscape of American Public Education: New Students, New Schools

II. Introduction

Total public school enrollment in the United States reached a peak of 46.1 million in 1971 as the youngest members of the baby boom generation arrived in the nation’s classrooms. Enrollment declined gradually to 39.2 million in fall 1984, then began to grow once again, increasing to 48.2 million—a 23% jump—by fall 2002.

The number of public schools followed the same historical trend. For most of the 20th century, the number declined, first as the population became more concentrated in metropolitan areas and then through consolidation after the baby boomers had graduated from high school. The number of public schools decreased to a low of 81,147 elementary and secondary schools in 1984. As with enrollment, the number of schools has increased dramatically in the subsequent two decades, reaching 93,869—an increase of 16%—in fall 2002.

This report examines the intersection of those two recent trends—the increase in school enrollment and the growth in the number of schools—which together have transformed U.S. public education over the past couple of decades. In particular, the report focuses on the rapid increase in the number of Hispanic students.

It examines where Hispanic students are concentrated, the kinds of schools they attend and changes in the schools that have experienced the most substantial Hispanic growth.

The increase in the total number of students has been driven primarily by one segment of the population: Hispanic students account for two of every three students added to U.S. public schools during the recent rise in enrollment.

As the number of schools increased in tandem with the higher enrollment, which students ended up in the newly created schools? While white enrollment decreased somewhat during the past two decades, a significant number of white students attended the new schools. Meanwhile, most of the increase in Hispanic enrollment was accommodated in existing schools.

The distribution of students in different types of schools is the result of many individual decisions by parents and school districts. It is the product of an array of factors, including changes in the U.S. economy and residential settlement patterns as well as both internal and international migration. Although the causes are too fragmented and complex to readily identify, changes in the nation’s educational landscape can be readily measured.

Every year, the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education collects detailed administrative data on public schools from state and local education agencies. Compiled in the Common Core of Data, these data include information on school enrollment by race/ethnicity and other basic school characteristics such as instructional level, number of full-time teachers, the type of community in which the school is located and eligibility for federal Title I funds, which are given to schools with large shares of students from households below the federal poverty level. The CCD does not provide information on student achievement or on the quality of instruction, and so it does not permit an assessment of what goes on inside schools. Rather, it affords a look at the basic characteristics of students and schools. Because the universe for the data collection is all public schools, there are no sampling errors associated with the tabulations.

The starting point for this analysis is the 1993-94 school year (prior to that, several states did not provide school-level information to the CCD), and the end point is 2002-03. Basing this report on that period provides a comparison of a decade’s worth of change in public education. To have an “apples-to-apples” comparison of public school enrollment over time, two states are excluded— Tennessee, because it did not report the race/ethnicity of public school enrollment in 2002-03, and Idaho, which did not report racial/ethnic enrollment for its schools in 1993-94. Thus, the total school counts and enrollment statistics used throughout this report are for 48 states and the District of Columbia (see Appendix A for additional details on the enrollment tabulations).

This report uses the CCD to identify two kinds of schools: “New” schools are those that opened in the 1993-94 to 2002-03 period. There are about 15,400 of those schools in the Department of Education data analyzed here. An additional 74,200 fall into the category described here as “existing” schools—those that were already operating in 1993-94 and that were still operating in 2002-03. The CCD permits an assessment of the boom in school construction, which increased the number of public schools by 11.5% in those 10 years. The data also allow an analysis of the race and ethnicity of the students in 2002-03 who attended new schools versus those attending existing schools.

The growth of the Hispanic population has not occurred evenly across all parts of the country and across all age ranges. As such, the analysis examines the enrollment growth and the opening of new schools at various levels of instruction and in different geographic areas. The final section of the report examines the changes in schools that have experienced a significant increase in Hispanic enrollment.

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