The 2004 AS&U 100

Sept. 1, 2004
A look at the largest U.S. school districts over 16 years shows they're getting more suburban and moving west.

From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, as the baby boomers completed their education and their ranks dwindled, public school enrollment declined steadily. But beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing today, enrollment has been rising.

Looking at this year's AS&U 100 list of the nation's largest school districts, one can see many of the changes that have occurred among those communities. Based on preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2002-03, the list shows that since the mid-1980s, large districts in general have grown larger, and suburban districts have claimed a greater share of those enrollment gains, often at the expense of urban school systems. Districts in the western part of the country have been growing faster than those in the East and Midwest.

For instance, from 1986 to 2002, the Atlanta district's enrollment shrunk by 16 percent as it dropped from the 37th largest district to the 74th. Over those same years, the suburban districts surrounding Atlanta — Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties — grew anywhere from 34 percent to 140 percent. The Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton districts all moved ahead of Atlanta in enrollment (DeKalb already was larger than Atlanta in 1986).

Districts that were among the 100 largest in 1986 that had dropped from the list in 2002 include urban districts: Newark, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Toledo, Birmingham, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

They were replaced by districts such as Pasco and Lee counties in Florida; Cypress-Fairbanks, Plano, Fort Bend and Garland in Texas; San Bernardino, Capistrano and Elk Grove in California; Cherry Creek, Colo.; Alpine, Utah; Washoe County, Nev.; Howard County, Md.; Clayton County, Ga.; Guilford County, N.C., and Knox County, Tenn. (in the final two districts, the rapid growth rate is the result of districts' consolidating).

Newark was the highest-ranked district from 1986 to drop off the list. It was the 57th-largest school system in 1986, but 16 years later, it was only the 114th largest. In addition to Atlanta, many urban districts that remained among the 100 largest in 2002 experienced similar enrollment loss over those 16 years. Enrollments dropped in the Washington, D.C., district by 21.1 percent, in the New Orleans district by 15 percent, in the Baltimore city district by 13.5 percent, and in the San Francisco district by 10.1 percent.

Since 1986, the fastest growing of the 100 largest districts is the Elk Grove, Calif., district in the Sacramento area. It had a modest 18,222 students in 1986, which placed it as the 262nd-largest district in the United States. By 2002, it had grown 187 percent, and its enrollment of 52,418 made it the 81st-largest district (see sidebar on p. 24).

The district that has gained the most students from 1986 to 2002 is the Clark County, Nev., district, which includes Las Vegas. It was the 18th-largest district with 95,145 students in 1986. By 2002, enrollment had climbed by more than 161,000, and its 256,574 students make it the nation's sixth largest.

From year to year, the list of the 100 largest districts changes little. Of the 100 districts on the 2001-02 list, 98 remain on the list in 2002-03. Only the 99th and 100th districts — Caddo Parish, La., and Buffalo, N.Y. — dropped from the list (replaced by Cherry Creek, Colo., and St. Louis).

Also, a list of the largest school districts tends to be heavily weighted toward areas that have countywide school systems. For instance, Florida has 13 countywide districts represented on the list. Georgia, where most districts are countywide systems, has a total student enrollment of almost 1.5 million and six districts among the 100 largest. Pennsylvania, with 1.8 million students dispersed among smaller districts, has only one district (Philadelphia) on the list.

As a group, the largest districts grew more rapidly and added schools at a faster pace than districts nationwide. In 2002-03, the 100 largest districts enrolled 10,745,337 students, an increase of 27.9 percent from 1986, when those districts had an enrollment of 8,399,372. The number of schools in those districts rose 29 percent from 1986 to 2002 — from 11,567 in 1986 to 14,920 in 2002.

In comparison, public school enrollment nationwide grew 21.3 percent from 1986 to 2002 — from 39,753,172 to 48,202,324. The number of schools did not grow as fast as enrollment — 96,048 schools in 2002, 14.4 percent more than the 82,925 schools in 1986.

In 1986, the 100th largest district was Kansas City, Mo., with 36,200 students. In 2002-03, 142 school districts had at least 36,200 students; the 100th largest, St. Louis, had 45,480.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Too big?

How many is too many?

That's the question administrators at the University of Texas at Austin, which has the largest single-campus enrollment in the nation, have pondered as they look at their burgeoning student population, which tallied 52,261 in the fall of 2002. A task force that examined the issue found that student-faculty ratios had become too high and four-year graduation rates were too low. The group, made up of faculty, staff and students, concluded that the school should reduce undergraduate enrollment over the next five years to bring the total student population down to 48,000.

“It is the undergraduate enrollment that should be decreased,” says the task force, “because it is this enrollment that has recently reached historic highs, and it is the undergraduate area in which the task force has found significant educational difficulties. If we leave undergraduate enrollment at its present size or let it grow further, then it will be harder to achieve the goal of a reduced student-faculty ratio, particularly if we are simultaneously encouraging students to take higher course loads.”

University president Larry Faulkner has endorsed the task force recommendations.

The task force also concluded that the facilities on the campus of more than 350 acres could readily accommodate 48,000 students.

“The 48,000 figure is a level of enrollment we have sustained over a considerable period in the past,” the group says. “Our physical plant is suitable for dealing with a population of this size, and to let the population fall lower would mean underutilization of this plant.”

In the short term, the task force recommends that Texas create more classroom space.

Top 100 school districts by enrollment, 2002-03

Rank District Enrollment, 2002-03 # schools, 2002-03 Total staff, 2002-03 Per-pupil expenditure ($), 2002-03 Enrollment, 2001-02 Enrollment, 1986-87 1986 rank % change, ‘86-‘02 1 New York City 1,077,381 1,429 129,953 11,314 1,049,831 938,473 1 14.8 2 Los Angeles 746,852 677 74,454 7,526 735,058 589,099 2 26.7 3 Chicago 436,048 608 28,911 7,651 437,418 431,298 3 1.1 4 Miami-Dade County, Fla. 373,395 370 36,539 6,565 375,836 243,537 4 53.3 5 Broward County, Fla. 267,925 259 25,401 5,877 262,055 131,726 10 103.4 6 Clark County, Nev. 256,574 282 21,626 5,799 245,659 95,145 18 168.2 7 Houston 212,099 308 27,917 7,033 210,950 194,389 6 9.1 8 Philadelphia 192,683 262 23,898 7,143 197,083 197,843 5 -2.6 9 Hawaii 183,829 284 20,054 7,253 184,546 161,302 8 14.0 10 Hillsborough County, Fla. 175,454 229 21,059 6,064 169,789 115,242 13 52.2 11 Detroit 173,742 273 12,105 9,108 166,675 189,269 7 -8.2 12 Palm Beach County, Fla. 164,896 208 17,974 6,346 160,223 84,680 24 94.7 13 Dallas 163,347 228 20,205 6,656 163,562 132,389 9 23.4 14 Fairfax County, Va. 162,585 202 23,413 9,200 160,584 126,183 11 28.9 15 Orange County, Fla. 158,718 188 19,557 5,994 157,433 84,125 25 88.7 16 San Diego 140,753 185 14,552 7,750 141,599 115,441 12 21.9 17 Montgomery County, Md. 138,983 194 17,800 10,005 136,895 94,457 19 47.1 18 Prince George's County, Md. 135,439 204 15,819 8,052 135,039 103,301 16 31.1 19 Duval County, Fla. 128,126 181 11,869 5,689 127,392 102,966 17 24.4 20 Gwinnett County, Ga. 122,570 89 14,539 7,025 116,339 50,906 62 140.8 21 Memphis 118,039 178 12,881 6,747 106,312 108,300 15 9.0 22 Pinellas County, Fla. 114,772 172 13,958 6,113 114,583 88.934 22 29.1 23 Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C. 109,767 134 14,195 7,000 106,312 73,360 30 49.6 24 Baltimore County 108,297 170 13,422 8,459 107,212 80,259 27 34.9 25 Wake County, N.C. 104,836 123 13,016 6,633 101,756 58,202 52 80.1 26 Cobb County, Ga. 100,389 102 12,555 7,068 98,338 62,357 42 61.0 27 DeKalb County, Ga. 97,967 139 13,373 8,117 97,501 73,040 31 34.1 28 Milwaukee 97,293 218 13,971 9,629 97,762 90,657 21 7.3 29 Long Beach, Calif. 97,212 89 8,993 7,018 96,488 65,052 39 49.4 30 Baltimore City 96,230 184 11,365 9,242 97,817 111,243 14 -13.5 31 Jefferson County, Ky. 95,651 175 13,434 7,994 93,516 92,940 20 2.9 32 Albuquerque 88,120 144 11,729 6,212 87,201 79,922 28 10.3 33 Jefferson County, Colo. 87,925 169 10,011 7,677 88,460 75,745 29 16.1 34 Polk County, Fla. 82,179 148 10,545 5,835 81,207 59,352 50 45.8 35 Fresno 81,222 103 7,475 7,410 81,058 58,969 51 37.7 36 Fort Worth 81,081 146 10,262 6,879 80,597 68,045 34 19.2 37 Austin 78,608 111 10,748 7,300 77,684 60,891 46 29.1 38 Virginia Beach, Va. 75,902 85 8,061 7,092 75,970 55,989 55 35.6 39 Mesa, Ariz. 75,269 91 7,831 5,167 74,808 56,018 54 34.4 40 Anne Arundel County, Md. 74,787 119 8,075 8,140 75,081 64,006 41 16.8 41 Jordan, Utah 73,808 80 5,753 4,496 73,494 61,022 45 21.0 42 Brevard County, Fla. 72,601 110 8,200 5,733 71,781 48,154 68 50.8 43 Denver 71,972 144 9,113 7,235 72,361 60,315 48 19.3 44 Cleveland 71.616 129 13,234 9,541 72,199 72,041 32 -0.6 45 Fulton County, Ga. 71,372 81 9,496 8,507 69,841 38,855 91 83.7 46 Granite, Utah 71,181 96 5,560 4,616 72,082 68,203 33 4.4 47 Cypress-Fairbanks, Texas 71,165 59 9,488 6,495 67,562 33,104 111 115.0 48 Orleans Parish, La. 70,246 128 8,448 6,436 73,185 82,639 26 -15.0 49 Northside (San Antonio) 69,409 89 9,988 6,411 66,000 44,776 74 55.0 50 Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn. 67,954 123 8,259 7,207 67,689 66,528 36 2.1 51 Washington, D.C. 67,522 170 11,549 13,187 68,449 85,612 23 -21.1 52 Guilford County, N.C. 65,677 102 7,853 6,750 64,546 23,925 179 174.5 53 Columbus 64,175 151 8,697 9,401 64,833 66,029 38 -2.8 54 Mobile County, Ala. 64,058 103 7,708 5,833 63,846 67,824 35 -5.6 55 Santa Ana, Calif. 63,610 55 5,567 7,172 61,909 37,415 98 70.0 56 Seminole County, Fla. 63,446 75 6,601 5,605 62,786 41,626 82 52.4 57 Greenville, S.C. 63,270 94 5,049 6,119 61,268 50,590 64 25.1 58 El Paso 63,185 94 8,910 6,725 62,844 61,616 43 2.5 59 Lee County, Fla. 63,172 79 6,737 6,046 60,718 35,309 103 78.9 60 Volusia County, Fla. 63,000 92 8,362 5,928 62,599 40,169 85 56.8 61 Tucson 61,958 125 7,339 5,803 62,104 55,235 56 12.2 62 Arlington, Texas 61,928 76 7,890 6,074 60,222 40,260 83 53.8 63 Boston 61,552 135 9,717 13,206 62,141 60,704 47 1.4 64 Prince William County, Va. 60,541 75 7,128 7,267 58,017 37,600 97 61.0 65 Washoe County, Nev. 60,384 100 7,228 6,048 58,532 33,705 109 79.2 66 Davis, Utah 60,367 85 5,275 4,809 59,366 49,061 65 23.0 67 Fort Bend, Texas 59,489 60 7,496 6,334 56,186 27,294 151 118.0 68 San Francisco 58,216 114 5,361 8,308 58,566 64,786 40 -10.1 69 San Antonio 57,120 107 7,967 7,182 57,462 61,084 44 -6.5 70 San Bernardino 56,096 65 5,143 7,380 54,166 33,454 110 67.7 71 Aldine, Texas 55,367 67 7,935 7,225 53,332 38,107 94 45.3 72 North East (San Antonio) 55,053 69 7,381 6,634 53,218 38,062 95 44.7 73 Pasco County, Fla. 54,957 72 6,932 5,785 52,675 29,347 137 87.3 74 Atlanta 54,946 102 7,417 11,562 56,586 66,069 37 -16.8 75 Garland, Texas 54,007 70 6,325 5,384 52,391 34,288 106 57.5 76 Chesterfield County, Va. 53,621 59 6,743 6,297 52,726 38,776 92 38.3 77 Knox County, Tenn. 53,411 88 6,627 6,148 51,866 26,485 154 101.7 78 Sacramento 52,850 80 4,518 7,976 53,418 45,893 71 15.2 79 Oakland 52,501 110 5,548 8,920 53,545 51,622 60 1.7 80 East Baton Rouge Parish, La. 52,434 107 7,204 7,311 52,350 57,523 53 -8.8 81 Elk Grove, Calif. 52,418 55 4,593 7,078 49,970 18,222 262 187.7 82 San Juan, Calif. 52,212 84 5,061 7,519 51,383 45,791 72 14.0 83 Cumberland County, N.C. 52,094 84 6,314 6,153 51,434 43,783 75 19.0 84 Portland 51,654 104 4,988 8,121 52,908 51,171 61 0.9 85 Jefferson Parish, La. 51,501 85 6,991 6,625 50,766 60,182 49 -14.4 86 Plano, Texas 51,039 72 6,373 6,707 49,091 28,101 143 81.6 87 Garden Grove, Calif. 50,066 67 4,173 6,680 49,809 36,395 99 37.6 88 Anchorage, Alaska 50,055 98 5,752 7,740 49,767 39,175 89 27.8 89 Clayton County, Ga. 49,594 54 6,167 6,593 48,232 32,538 114 52.4 90 Alpine, Utah 49,159 59 3,026 4,396 48,296 31,153 122 57.8 91 Wichita 48,913 90 5,682 7,182 48,852 44,919 73 8.9 92 Capistrano, Calif. 48,608 51 3,914 6,506 46,756 20,588 224 136.1 93 Seattle 47,853 132 5,578 8,921 47,449 39,637 88 20.7 94 Howard County, Md. 47,197 69 6,075 9,035 46,257 25,629 161 84.2 95 Forsyth County, N.C. 46,806 68 5,422 6,880 45,707 38,857 90 20.5 96 Ysleta (El Paso) 46,745 63 5,982 6,158 46,811 48,653 66 -3.9 97 Minneapolis 46,037 144 6,114 10,896 48,155 37,753 96 21.9 98 Omaha 45,986 84 6,319 6,877 45,782 41,638 81 10.4 99 Cherry Creek, Colo. 45,738 53 5,273 7,125 44,228 26,459 155 72.9 100 St. Louis 45,480 124 6,481 10,144 43,969 48,209 67 -5.7 Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data

Growth surge continues

By nearly tripling its enrollment from 1986 to 2002, the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified District is the fastest-growing school system on this year's AS&U 100.

The district, which covers 320 square miles in southern Sacramento County, projects that the influx of students to the area, which has seen enrollments rise steadily since the 1960s, will continue at least through this decade.

Elk Grove's enrollment climbed from 3,823 in 1959 to 8,798 in 1969 to 12,162 in 1979. The growth accelerated in the next two decades, reaching 24,385 in 1989 and 47,423 in 2000. For the 2004-05 school year, the district expects to enroll more than 58,000 students. If, as expected, enrollment reaches 80,000 students by 2010, it would be among the 40 largest districts in the United States.

That's a long way up the charts from 1986, when 261 other U.S. districts had greater enrollments.

The district has been able to increase the effective capacity of its facilities through the use of year-round schedules at many of its schools. Elk Grove estimates that 60 percent of its students are on a four-track schedule of three months in school and one month off.

Even with year-round calendars, Elk Grove administrators have had their hands full constructing new facilities. The district opened six schools in the two previous years, and this fall, it is opening a high school, middle school and two elementary schools. Next fall, it is scheduled to open three more campuses.

“In addition, the district must build 18 more elementary schools, three more middle schools, and three more high schools by 2010,” according to the district.

Big plans in the Big Apple

With more than 1 million students, New York City has by far the most students of any U.S. district — some 330,000 more than the next largest school system.

So it's no surprise that its facility needs make those of other districts look like a drop in the bucket. The school system's five-year capital plan for fiscal years 2005-09 has identified $13.1 billion in construction projects.

“The plan places priority on directing resources to schools that are struggling the most and addresses the problem of overcrowding in our schools,” says the school system's executive summary of the plan.

The three main elements of the capital plan:

  • $4.6 billion for restructuring of existing schools, including funds to reconfigure 671 struggling schools into smaller schools and to create 50 small charter schools. Also included in this category: $736 million for technology enhancements, such as wireless systems, computers and Internet connections; $157 million for safety upgrades such as access-control systems and video surveillance equipment; and $1.276 billion for enhancements such as science lab upgrades, improved accessibility for those with disabilities, and creation of more playgrounds.

  • $4.2 billion to build 90 new schools. This will help alleviate overcrowding, reduce class size in primary grades and diminish the school system's reliance on transportable classrooms. This part of the plan would pay for construction of 90 new schools with an aggregate student capacity of 66,000; 13 will be 440-capacity schools, housing either grades K-3 or K-8; 54 will be 630-seat primary/intermediate buildings, many of which will house grades K-8; 23 will be 1,650-capacity intermediate/high school buildings, many of which will house grades 6-12.

  • $4.3 billion for building upgrades and other repairs. That includes $923 million for exterior building improvements; $1.7 billion for interior building system upgrades; $297 million for other building upgrades; $200 million for central office technology; and $1.2 billion for other needs.

The capital plan stresses that the projects cannot go forward without substantial assistance from the state. The New York State Court of Appeals ordered the state last year to reform its school funding system to provide more equitable funding to New York City, but the legislature did not act before the court's deadline of July 30, 2004.

“State funds are essential to correct the generations-long imbalance between the needs of our children and the resources provided to our schools,” the plan asserts.

20 largest enrollments, colleges and universities, Fall 2002

Miami-Dade Community College 54,926 University of Texas at Austin 52,261 Ohio State University 49,676 University of Minnesota-Twin Cities 48,677 University of Phoenix-Online Campus 48,085 University of Florida 47,373 Arizona State University 47,359 Texas A&M University 45,083 Michigan State University 44,937 City College of San Francisco 42,975 Pennsylvania State University 41,445 University of Wisconsin-Madison 40,884 Purdue University 40,117 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 39,999 University of Washington-Seattle 39,882 Houston Community College System 39,528 Northern Virginia Community College 39,129 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 38,972 Indiana University-Bloomington 38,903 University of South Florida 38,854 Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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