WASHINGTON -- A record 49.6 million students filled US schools in 2003, breaking a mark set by their baby boomer parents and giving educators a new generation of challenges.
The growth is largely due to all the children who were born in the late 1940s to early '60s and have since become parents themselves, the Census Bureau said yesterday. Rising immigration played a part, too, in pushing enrollment past the 1970 record of 48.7 million.
''You could have predicted this back in 1970 when we had all those kids," said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, which assesses population trends. ''We knew they were going to have kids of their own. We have this classic echo effect going on."
Even if it is not surprising, the record tally of students poses steep challenges for schools: recruiting teachers, helping children who do not speak English, keeping class sizes manageable, and finding enough financial aid for students who go on to college.
In population rings outside urban areas and in Western states such as Nevada and California, for example, the growth has been concentrated, increasing demands on schools.
''They just really don't have the fiscal capacity to match this," said Scott Young, senior policy specialist in education for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In districts outside Atlanta, Houston, and Las Vegas, enrollment has soared more than 20 percent in the past five years, said Bruce Hunter, who directs lobbying for the American Association of School Administrators. His group has identified about 400 such districts.
''The pressures are to stay up with it, to hire, to get the classrooms staffed, to find quality principals," Hunter said. ''But the joy of it is you have this tremendous opportunity because the communities have a real clear stake, so you have vibrant school systems."
In other parts of the country, such as the upper Midwest, the school population has declined in some counties, Mather said. ''Some of those kids are riding an hour or two on a bus to get to school because there aren't enough kids to keep local schools open," he said.
Immigration helped fuel the boom. A total of 22 percent of students have at least one foreign-born parent, including 91 percent of Asian children and 66 percent of Hispanic youngsters.
Many high-growth states have not prepared well for the racial and ethnic transformation, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. With the largest ever high school graduating class coming soon, colleges are being pressed to provide capacity for everyone while keeping tuition affordable.
''These kids are coming along at a time when, unlike the baby boomers, their chances of a middle-class life without college are almost nil," Callan said. ''It's going to drive higher education policy over the next few years. This is a huge challenge."
During the peak enrollment year during the baby boomers' time in school, almost 8 in 10 students were non-Hispanic whites. In 2003, 60 percent of students were white, 18 percent were Hispanic, 16 percent were black, and 4 percent were Asian.
But the diversity of the teaching corps has not nearly kept pace, said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, which is working to address that disparity.
''The question is, what's going to be the match?" Weaver said. ''It's not that the teachers who are not minorities cannot teach -- they can. But what's going to be done to create an excellent environment for all teachers and students?"
The enrollment growth is likely to continue through this year, according to the Census Bureau report. Enrollment is expected to drop slightly through 2010 because of a decline in births from 1991 to 1997, but then pick up again, the Census figures indicate.
The estimates are based on survey responses from a 2003 population sample.