October 5, 2006

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

I. Overview

Since the mid-1990s, two trends have transformed the landscape of American public education: Enrollment has increased because of the growth of the Hispanic population, and the number of schools has also increased. This report examines the intersection of those trends. Total public school enrollment in the United States peaked at 46.1 million in 1971 as the youngest members of the baby boom generation arrived in the nation’s classrooms. Enrollment gradually dropped off, to 39.2 million in fall 1984, then began to increase once again, reaching 48.2 million—a 23% jump—in fall 2002.

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

Examining data for the decade of most concentrated change—between the 1993- 94 and 2002-03 school years— this report finds that Hispanics accounted for 64% of the students added to public school enrollment. Meanwhile, blacks accounted for 23% of the increase and Asians 11%. White enrollment declined by 1%.

During that same period, 15,368 schools, with an enrollment of 6.1 million in 2002-03, were opened. Nearly half, 2.5 million, of the students attending the new schools were white and meanwhile white enrollment in older schools dropped by 2.6 million. In contrast, about two-thirds of the increase in Latino enrollment was accommodated in older schools.

The analysis is based on the Common Core of Data, compiled each year by the U.S. Department of Education from state and local education agencies across the country. The CCD provides basic administrative data on all schools but does not include information on student achievement. Data from the 1993-94 and 2002-03 school years are analyzed here to provide a portrait of change across the 10-year period. The data analyzed are for 48 states and the District of Columbia (Tennessee and Idaho are excluded because the race/ethnicity data from those states are incomplete).

Assessing the changes in the racial and ethnic composition of school enrollment, this report finds that despite population change, white students continued to attend schools populated primarily by other whites and relatively few attended schools populated primarily by minorities.

The report also finds that a relatively small number of schools absorbed most of the increase in Hispanic enrollment and that those schools differ in important ways from schools less affected by Hispanic population growth. The schools that experienced the largest growth in Hispanic enrollment were generally larger, had more students on federal subsidies and also had greater teacher-student ratios— the latter an important indicator that has improved across the nation but not as significantly in Hispanic-impacted schools.

Among the major findings in this report:

A Note on Terminology

The terms Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably in this report.

The terms white, black and Asian refer to non-Hispanics.

Cite this publication: Richard Fry. “The Changing Landscape of American Public Education: New Students, New Schools.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 5, 2006) http://www.pewhispanic.org/2006/10/05/the-changing-landscape-of-american-public-education-new-students-new-schools/, accessed on July 23, 2014.