WASHINGTON - Renewing its fight for smaller class sizes and new school construction, the Clinton administration reported Monday that the nation's public and private schools will open to more than 53 million children this fall - the fifth straight record number.
Predicting overflowing schools into the next century, President Clinton and Democrats used the annual projection of fall enrollment to blast congressional Republicans for resisting government proposals to help hire more teachers and build more schools.
"Our children deserve no less," Clinton said while traveling in upstate New York. "We need to build new schools and modernize existing ones."
The Education Department report said 53 million children will enter kindergarten through 12th grade this fall, up from 52.8 million last year. The new figure is considered a record because the department had lowered its estimate of last year's enrollment to 52.8 million from 53.2 million.
College enrollment for fall 2000 also set a record of 15.1 million.
For the first time, the department report predicted school growth through the next century. Officials said that by 2100, the nation's schools will have to find room for 94 million students nearly double the number of school-age children, ages 5 to 17, the nation has now.
These numbers will grow, officials say, because of increasing immigration to this country and a second American baby boom, coming two generations after the record births in the middle of the 20th century.
The report came as Democrats renewed their call for funds they say would thwart a school-crowding crisis in America.
"We need to figure out where we will put these children," Education Secretary Richard Riley said during a school tour in Las Vegas, which has seen school enrollment double to 200,000 since 1990. "Many communities need to be building more schools now."
Riley called on Congress to pass a $24.8 billion tax proposal to help states raise money to build new schools and fix old ones particularly in urban cities where buildings have reached the 100-year-old mark and communities are too poor to get the money from property taxes.
Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who heads education lawmaking in the House, said the $792 billion tax package vetoed by Clinton last year would have included measures to help schools raise money for repairs and construction.
Once again this session, House and Senate leaders have blocked Clinton's education proposals, which include dedicating federal money for states to hire more teachers and raise construction bonds for new schools. Republicans, who are pushing $1.8 billion in state grants, say the Democratic plans are too costly and don't address the growing populations of all schools.
Figures show suburban schools also are bursting. Some of the counties surrounding Atlanta and Washington, D.C., have nearly doubled their school enrollments over the decade.
California, Texas and New York expect to enroll the most children this year. Nevada, Arizona and Florida have posted the highest rates of student growth over the last decade. There are no state-by-state figures available for the century projections.
Observers say the education debate, now taking center stage in the presidential campaign, is more partisan that it's ever been since the first major federal education laws were enacted in 1965. The current renewal of that law remains bogged down in both the House and Senate; Clinton has threatened to reject any bill that doesn't include his priorities.
Educators said Monday the enrollment figures should push lawmakers past the impasse.
"Eventually they are going to have parents tugging at their sleeves," said John Jennings, a Washington-based education researcher who spent two decades working on education policy for congressional Democrats. "Maybe these numbers are going to push them into reality."
"This is not just immigration," he said. "There are more kids everywhere."
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