Baby Boomlet Has California State Officials Scrambling

CLASSROOM ALERT

CALIFORNIA, the land of eternal youth, may be living up to its sobriquet.

In a subtle but significant shift, the state is seeing its population age at a substantially slower rate than much of the rest of the nation.

Put another way, it is producing far more toddlers than retirees - with important implications for everything from schools to health care.

New United States Census Bureau figures show that California is now the sixth youngest state in the nation, up from 29th in 1980.

The state's median age has gone up by barely a birthday candle in the past 13 years. It sits at 32. ``It is a big change from where we were,'' says Mary Heim, a demographer with the state Department of Finance.

Behind the slowdown in the state's so-called aging process is an enduring baby boomlet:

* While the state's population as a whole has grown only 4.9 percent since 1990, the number of preschoolers has jumped 14.4 percent - the second highest rate in the country (behind Nevada).

* Some 9.1 percent of the state's population is below five years of age, the third highest proportion in the country. Utah, the highest, has 9.7 percent.

* Though births in California peaked in 1992, they continue at a rate of about 600,000 a year - creating a city the size of Boston annually. New births have accounted for most of the 2.8 million new infants and toddlers to arrive in the state since 1990.

Contributing to the boomlet has been an influx of Asian, Hispanic, and other immigrants as well as a sizable population of long-time residents who have reached prime child-rearing age in the past decade.

While the number of youngsters has grown, so has the number of elderly, just not as fast. The result is a populace graying slower - more surfers than Sun City set.

``It is still aging,'' says Edwin Byerly, a statistician with the US Census Bureau. ``But in terms of other states, it is getting a younger age structure.''

The baby boomlet will be felt throughout California society, not the least in schools.

Before the current recession - which has slowed the state's population increase considerably - education officials estimated the state would have to build 20 new classrooms everyday between now and the turn of the century to accommodate an enrollment increase of more than 160,000 annually.

The enrollment increase is now estimated to be 80,000 a year, which means a dozen new classrooms a day. Local districts, of course, won't be able to put up that many gymnasiums and science labs.

To help battle the bulge, many have gone to year-round calendars that increase their capacity by 30 percent. Laws also require new classrooms to be portable so they can moved as population densities shift.

A push is under way in the state legislature to allow local bond measures to be approved by a majority vote, rather a two-thirds vote, which would presumably lead to more school construction.

Yet, even with these measures, some districts will likely see more overcrowding. The state already has the highest average size classroom in the nation.

Nor is space the only consideration. Many of the new students entering schools in this immigrant-oriented state don't speak English.

In the 1960s, when the image of California was the Beach Boys and top-down Mustangs, 75 percent of the kids in schools were white and English speaking. Now 43 percent are. The typical California student then came from a family whose parents had an education and income above the national average. Now they don't.

``It is a very, very stark difference,'' says William Rukeyser, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

There are other impacts lurking in the numbers as well.

The exodus of some retirees from the state in recent years, many of them searching for better and cheaper lifestyles in neighboring states, could ease the pressure on escalating health-care costs. On the other hand, more newborns are taking up more hospital beds on the other end.

Similarly, as today's toddlers become tomorrow's job seekers, they will test the ability of the economy to absorb them. Yet they will also be a source of new vitality and diversity.

``Our whole culture is geared toward a larger population of young people,'' says Kevin Starr, a California historian who teaches at the University of Southern California. ``I see young people as a source of wealth - creating jobs, being consumers.''

Growth in the state's overall population, now 31 million, has slowed because of an out-migration of people the past few years. While the exodus continues - many of them in their 30s looking for work - it has racheted down in recent months, state officials say.

Immigration, meanwhile, remains strong. As many as 300,000 people a year are coming into California, an estimated one-third of them illegal, creating other types of social and economic conflicts.

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