Back to school, by the numbers

Think that the number of students in school is declining? Think again — according to the report of the National Center for Educational Statistics, the total number of U.S. public school students has risen slowly but steadily, from 44,840,000 in 1995 to an estimated 49, 751,000 this September.

This fall’s student body looks a little different than it did back in 1995. For the first time, students of color are a majority of K-12 students in U.S. public schools. They make up 50.2 percent of all students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The report shows the percentage of students by race as:

White: 49.8%

Black: 15.4%

Hispanic: 25.8%

Asian/Pacific Islander: 5.2%

American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.1%

Two or more races: 2.8%

Minnesota is whiter than the national average. The most recent numbers from the Minnesota Department of Education show a statewide 2012/2013 enrollment of 845,177, with 228,384 students of color — about 27 percent. In Minneapolis, almost 68 percent of students are students of color and in St. Paul, the number rises to 77 percent.

Early education is key to giving children an equal start when they enter school. That means kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, Head Start, pre-school, and even earlier whole-family support.

But, as Richard Chase wrote in the Wilder Foundation blog:

“Something is fundamentally wrong, however, because our youngest children are also the poorest Minnesotans. Nearly one in five children under age 6 lives in poverty, and 61 percent of children under age 6 living in poverty are children of color. They also suffer disparity after disparity in indicators of educational, health, and social well-being, which place their own and our state’s future prosperity at risk.”

The Minnesota legislature appropriated $134 million to fund free all-day kindergarten across the state. That’s great — but many children need even earlier help to be kindergarten-ready when they start school. If they don’t get that help, warns Chase, the entire state will pay the costs:

“For every child who enters kindergarten at a disadvantage, the probable public and private costs of special education, welfare and unemployment assistance, lost tax revenues, substance abuse treatment, and costs associated with crime add up over a lifetime to $56,000. …

“Right now, because more than 70,000 of the 156,000 low-income children age 5 and younger in Minnesota lack access to effective early learning opportunities, the dice are loaded to waste and lose money.”

The problem is not limited to urban areas. In much of rural Minnesota, finding any daycare at all, much less daycare that offers a good learning environment, is difficult to impossible. The Star Tribune reported on August 24 on the lack of childcare facilities in greater Minnesota.

“As a result, demand for day care across the state is deep, but somehow, there’s not enough supply. The market for child care in rural parts of the state, especially infant care — isn’t working. Profit margins in child care can be as low as 10 cents per child per hour in the Twin Cities, and rural child-care businesses often operate at a loss.

“’When it’s not available to families who can’t afford it, that’s an even bigger problem,’ Hagel Braid said. ‘If you are a poor kid in greater Minnesota, that means you have even fewer options available, and you’re at the most risk of not being ready for kindergarten.’”

As the school year opens, students and teachers face plenty of challenges — but the entire state owns the challenge of leveling the playing field for all of our children.

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