Transcript From PBS News Hour: Future Trends in School Overcrowding

The following dialog (shortened to include only the two top persons interviewed) is from a transcript of PBS' News Hour on August 21, 1997, and was downloaded from the internet address for the PBS News Hour The subject was "Future Trends in School Overcrowding", and Interviewees included Secretary of Education, Richard Riley and Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. This is an organization in Washington DC that represents the 50 largest school districts in the nation.

Online NewsHour: The Boomer Echo filling the schools (Excerpts of dialog)

School enrollment in America's elementary and middle schools are at all-time highs, mainly because children of Baby Boomers are entering the classroom. How will local school districts handle their new charges? Paul Solman talks with Education Secretary Richard Riley and school officials from around the country.

PAUL SOLMAN: The new demographic bulge is for real. There are some 72 million children aged 18 and younger nationwide at this point. They represent fully 28 percent of the total population. No wonder schools are bursting at the seams. So, Richard Riley, Secretary of Education, thanks for being with us. And what's your report about? And what's the thrust of it today?

RICHARD RILEY, Secretary of Education: Well, the thrust of the report is--as we go back to school--is that this year there will be more young people in K-12 schools, public and private altogether, 52.2 million, than ever in the history of this country. Last year was a record. This year will be a record. Every year will be a record for about the next 10 years. And then there will be a plateau, but it will be a high plateau, and it's not going to be a blip up and down. It's going to be a constant increase that's going to be held and maintained.

SOLMAN: Wouldn't that be natural, I mean, if the country's growing, then more people, more kids in school?

RILEY: Well, it is perhaps a natural thing in one sense, but when you look back at the Baby Boomers that really reached the peak in the early 70's, that was a blip. In other words, you could have a temporary part-time solution because you knew it was coming back down. This blip is not a blip. It's staying up there. It's a level that's constantly going up. The interesting thing about it is that high schoolers really are by far the largest increase, some 13 percent increase in high school, like 5 percent increase in middle school, about 1 percent in elementary school.

SOLMAN: And why is that?

RILEY: That's because Baby Boom group--the Baby Boom echo, they call it, that the children--

SOLMAN: I see, the echo of we Baby Boomers.

RILEY: And the Baby Boomers have children late. They decided to have children late. They married late. And so really it's coming in later, but it's hitting in high school as we approach this next 10 years.

SOLMAN: So they're in middle school at the moment.

RILEY: Well, middle and elementary school, but it's really getting on up there in high school over the next 10 years, yes. You're going to see some things out there that are unfortunate.

SOLMAN: So what's the worry?.. what are you warning us about?

RILEY: Well, what we're doing in our job as the federal Department of Education is to let policy makers out there, let school superintendents and principals and teachers and school board members realize that this is happening. They need to pay close attention to an increasing enrollment. People have got to support schools in a big way. They've got to realize that's the future of this country. That's the future of their state or their community. And it is not a temporary thing. And if you have a temporary classroom out there, you know, don't call it a temporary classroom.

SOLMAN: It'll be temporary forever.

RILEY: It's going to be temporary forever, and you really need permanent construction and good schools to make for a good education.

SOLMAN: I mean, are you genuinely worried that there's going to be overcrowding in schools that will hurt America's educational level? I guess that's the key question, you know.

RILEY: Well, I think I worry about all parts of education all the time.

SOLMAN: That's your shop. Yes, I know.

RILEY: And it's my natural proclivity. But I will say this; that unless public decision makers realize that this is real and especially as we approach these next years in high school, then the poor decisions are made, people aren't willing to be committed to the schools and make the challenge real, then you're going to see some things out there that are unfortunate and that will gravitate poorly on this country and the various states.

SOLMAN: All right. Well, thanks. We'll be back to you in a second because now we're joined by Michael Casserly, who represents the 50 largest school districts in the country; Rod Paige, school superintendent, joins us from Houston, he is school superintendent in Houston; and Terry Grier, superintendent of the Williamson County School District outside Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome to all of you. And you're here Mr. Casserly, in Washington. Respond, if you would, to the secretary's comments.

MICHAEL CASSERLY, Council of the Great City Schools: First of all, the Department of Education and Sec. Riley have performed a terrific service for everybody in highlighting the needs that the nation is really going to have to face and the challenges we're going to all have to come to grips with in pointing out the enormous size and the nature and scope of enrollment increases over the next few years. Some urban districts are seeing population increases of 50 %.

SOLMAN: So the problems he's talking about are real, as your 50 urban, I guess, school districts.

CASSERLY: Fifty urban school districts across the country. And we in some ways were probably precursors of many of the enrollment increases and have seen rather substantial enrollment increases upwards of 50 percent in some of the cities just over the last five years.

SOLMAN: A 50 percent increase in five years?

CASSERLY: In five years. Just in some of the school districts. And this is from a variety of different reasons, but it's going to present enormous challenges not only to the schools but to the American public. We have enormous challenges in terms of recruiting new teachers, enormous challenges in the facilities that we educate our children in, enormous challenges in terms of class size and achievement levels, and a host of things that we're going to have to deal with.

SOLMAN: Well, give us, if you would, the most pressing problem for your 50 districts, if there is one that stands out, or there are several, I guess. I don't want to stick you with just one, but--

CASSERLY: I think probably the toughest challenge that urban education faces in this country related to the enrollment increases is achievement. And what I probably worry about the most in terms of the achievement increases is that it could put a substantial damper on the achievement gains that we have seen over the last couple of years. If the enrollment increases start to result in increased school sizes, increased class sizes and the like, and the teachers aren't qualified to deal with these many students, we could easily see achievements course in this country not gain in the way that we really need to see them gain to meet the high standards we're going to have to meet for the 21st century.

SOLMAN: Sec. Riley, is Williamson County typical here, and if it is, if it isn't, what are you telling people from these different places, Mr. Casserly and others to do?

RILEY: Well, I think Terry Grier is right, and Rod Paige too, that you really have to look at different areas. It's typical for lots of examples but not typical of others. It is a good example of where the people really believe in the schools, and that is the future of the community. And they have responded in a very positive way.

SOLMAN: Okay. Back to you, Sec. Riley. I just wanted to clarify whether--how typical or atypical it was.

RILEY: Well, you know, regardless of that, I know a lot of affluent communities that aren't as generous with their schools too. You can have a community that believes in education and supports it, or one that doesn't, or one that we hope will become better, but I think it's very clear -- it's very clear -- that schools are the future of this country; education is. I think the idea of achievement being affected by overcrowding and some of these other factors, teachers, is another very important factor. We talk about having less pupils per teacher. Then you talk about having more teachers; and you talk about student enrollment means more teachers. And you have a third of the teachers today that are teaching out of their field. So you've got some real problems dealing with growth and expansion and high quality.

SOLMAN: Does overcrowding actually make that much difference? I remember researching this years ago as a research assistant in the 1960's. And it wasn't clear that spending more money on schools--at least back then--was--had a real payoff to it. So I--

RILEY: Overcrowding, I think you're exactly right, the research is inconclusive about a particular magic number, and you can come down on a couple of pupils per teacher, and it doesn't make a whole lot of difference. A significant reduction does make a difference and a significantly large classroom clearly makes a bad negative difference

....... (Discussion by Superintendent of Houston Schools of their use of grocery stores as a temporary location for classrooms in some cases.)

SOLMAN: But you can't keep people in a grocery store, as the secretary says; these things are--this trend--this is no blip. This is a plateau.

ROD PAIGE: Absolutely. I think what is going to have to happen is we as a society will have to step up to the challenge, and we're going to have to create more space to solve the problem......The answer will be more buildings.

SOLMAN: Mr. Casserly, are we going to do that?

CASSERLY: Rod is absolutely 1000 percent correct. A lot of the measures that Houston and other school districts are having to take in terms of shared usage or the rent of alternative facilities or year-round schools or staggered schedules are--all of those kinds of things really are band-aid approaches, stop-gap measures until such time that the nation can really get the will together to create the facilities, the educational structures that the nation and the kids need for adequate learning.

SOLMAN: How does the nation get this will together...

CASSERLY: I think a lot of it is calling additional attention to the value and the important role that public education in this nation plays in the integrity of this nation. Public education is really the glue that holds this nation together and a thriving, healthy public education system is exactly what this nation needs to keep moving forward.

SOLMAN: But, Sec. Riley, don't we already spend a lot more money say per pupil than we used to, and you know, we've been hearing this story about we have to spend--we have to spend--we have to spend on education--I mean, isn't the public a little skeptical of whether or not just pouring money in is going to be the answer or building new schools?

RILEY: Certainly, pouring money in is not the answer. Putting investment in, in a careful way on known factual information makes good sense, though. But I think there are so many factors to consider. For example, this growth--we mentioned infrastructure, buildings, and teachers, but computers, technology--you have all of the other factors involving high schools. And you have this large number of students over the next 10 years--21 percent increase enrollment in college. That is another factor. And so the colleges also then are impacted by this very clearly.

SOLMAN: So you just want to get the message out, and that's what you're doing here, and that's what you're doing here today.

RILEY: Absolutely.

SOLMAN: And the idea is to just get everybody to realize how--at least from your point of view--important it is.

CASSERLY: Well, I think it really is key that those messages do get out because in the places where the school systems and the parents and the community have gone to the voters and asked for additional funds over the last year or so to build more facilities, to increase operating levies, to invest more in their children. Those bonds, more and more, have been approved.

SOLMAN: Is that right?

CASSERLY: That's correct.

SOLMAN: We'll leave it on that note then. Thank you all.

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