The Changing Landscape of American Public Education: New Students, New Schools
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:
- Between the 1993-94 and 2002-03 school years, the total number of children enrolled in U.S. public schools increased by about 4.7 million, from 41.8 million to 46.6 million. That marked the most robust period of enrollment growth since the matriculation of the baby boomers.
- Hispanics accounted for 3 million of those additional students, or 64% of the increase. The number of black students increased by 1.1 million, and the number of Asians grew by half a million. Meanwhile, white public school enrollment dropped by 35,000.
- Between the 1993-94 and the 2002-03 school years, 15,368 schools, with an enrollment of 6.1 million in 2002-03, were opened. That is likely the most vigorous school construction period in the U.S. since the 1920s.
- In 2002-03, about 1 million Latinos were enrolled in schools that had opened since 1993-94. Meanwhile, Latino enrollment in already existing schools increased by about 2.1 million. In other words, about two-thirds of the total Hispanic enrollment increase between 1993-94 and 2002-03 flowed into public schools that were already operating at the start of this period and about one-third of the increase went into new schools.
- White enrollment in existing schools declined by 2.6 million students between 1993-94 and 2002-03. Meanwhile, 2.5 million white students were educated in new schools.
- The changes are most striking in the nation’s elementary schools. During the period under study, Hispanic enrollment increased by 1.6 million and white enrollment declined by 1.2 million. Meanwhile, 6,500 new primary schools were opened. Of the 2 million students attending the new schools, nearly 1.1 million were white. At the same time, white enrollment in existing primary schools declined by 2.3 million students, or 17%. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the Latino primary school enrollment increase was educated in existing schools.
- Across all grades, new schools differ from existing schools in some key characteristics. They are smaller (396 total enrollment versus 545), and they have more affluent students (39% of the schools are eligible for Title I funds versus 60%).
- After this decade of transformation, one fundamental characteristic remained essentially unchanged: A substantial majority of white students attended schools populated primarily by other whites, and relatively few attended schools populated primarily by minorities.
- The share of white students attending predominantly white schools (where white enrollment exceeded 90%) dropped but remained substantial at 40%. The share attending schools that were more than half white increased, while the share attending schools where minority group students were a majority increased only slightly.
- The growth in Hispanic enrollment was highly concentrated in a relatively small number of existing schools. One-fifth of those 74,200 schools absorbed two-thirds of the increased Hispanic enrollment.
- The schools most affected by Hispanic enrollment increases grew in size by 25%, both in absolute numbers and on a percentage basis. Schools with less Hispanic growth, meanwhile, remained stable in size.
- The share of poor students, as measured by eligibility for free lunch programs, rose from 34% to 43% in the schools most impacted by increases in Hispanic enrollment and from 31% to 34% elsewhere.
- The decline in student-teacher ratios was slower in the schools most affected by Hispanic enrollment gains than in the rest of the nation’s schools.
- Nationwide, the average share of white students in Hispanic-impacted schools decreased from 60% to 38%. Meanwhile, in all other schools the white share declined more modestly from 71% to 66%.
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.