Demography has become a required subject for US educators. As Secretary of Education Richard Riley pointed out last week in a report on school enrollment, the country is about to experience a growth spurt in the student body.
Most of that growth will come at the high school level, where the economic stakes of education, including the cost of school buildings, are especially high. Mr. Riley projected a 13 percent increase in high school students over the next decade (a jump of 1.7 million) as the children of the post-World War II baby boom parents reach their teen years.
More students will, of course, need more teachers - at least another 150,000 high school instructors over the same decade. Science and math teachers, in particular, will be in short supply.
This demographic surge is coming at a crucial moment. Many states and communities are rethinking the way they pay for schools, often under the impulse of court-ordered changes in property tax systems. A number of states have taken steps to decrease class sizes in order to enhance education. Immigration is adding to enrollments in places like Texas, Florida, and California. The nation's bill to fix up old and inadequate school buildings is estimated at $112 billion, and 6,000 new schools are needed.
Americans have spent the last decade and a half studying the problems faced by public education and generating ideas for reform. The increasing ranks of students about to enter high school pose a final exam, of sorts. A passing grade is mandatory.