School choice programs have been wildly successful under DeSantis. Now public schools might close.

Politico | By Andrew Atterbury | May 26, 2024

The Republican governor’s school choice programs may serve as a model for other GOP-leaning states across the country.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans have spent years aggressively turning the state into a haven for school choice. They have been wildly successful, with tens of thousands more children enrolling in private or charter schools or homeschooling.

Now as those programs balloon, some of Florida’s largest school districts are facing staggering enrollment declines — and grappling with the possibility of campus closures — as dollars follow the increasing number of parents opting out of traditional public schools.

The emphasis on these programs has been central to DeSantis’ goals of remaking the Florida education system, and they are poised for another year of growth. DeSantis’ school policies are already influencing other GOP-leaning states, many of which have pursued similar voucher programs. But Florida has served as a conservative laboratory for a suite of other policies, ranging from attacking public- and private-sector diversity programs to fighting the Biden administration on immigration.

Education officials in some of the state’s largest counties are looking to scale back costs by repurposing or outright closing campuses — including in Broward, Duval and Miami-Dade counties. Even as some communities rally to try to save their local public schools, traditional public schools are left with empty seats and budget crunches.

Since 2019-20, when the pandemic upended education, some 53,000 students have left traditional public schools in these counties, a sizable total that is forcing school leaders to consider closing campuses that have been entrenched in local communities for years.

In Broward County, Florida’s second-largest school district, officials have floated plans to close up to 42 campuses over the next few years, moves that would have a ripple effect across Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood.

The district has lost more than 20,000 students over the last five years, a decline that comes as charter schools in particular experienced sizable growth in the area. Enrollment in charters, which are public schools operating under performance contracts freeing them of many state regulations, increased by nearly 27,000 students since 2010, according to Broward school officials.

“Florida has shown a blueprint, and we really can be an engine for that as other states work to adopt a lot of the policies that we’ve done.”

– Gov. Ron DeSantis

Broward County Public Schools claims to have more than 49,000 classroom seats sitting empty this year, a number that “closely matches” the 49,833 students attending charter schools in the area, officials noted in an enrollment overview.

These enrollment swings are pressing Broward leaders to combine and condense dozens of schools, efforts that would save the district on major operating costs. So far, some of the ideas are meeting heavy resistance.

One proposal aiming to turn a popular Fort Lauderdale magnet school that focuses on the Montessori teaching method into a neighborhood school brought a crowd nearing 200 people in opposition at a recent town hall. There, dozens of audience members, a sea of blue “VSY’’ shirts representing Virginia Shuman Young elementary, contended the plan would cause an unnecessary “disruption” for a top-rated school.

“You are trying to create school communities that attract families,” Erin Gohl, the PTA president at VSY, said during the May 6 town hall. “Look at what you have before you — replicate, don’t dismantle and destroy this incredible school community.”

The strong opposition to school closures prompted Broward Superintendent Howard Hepburn to abruptly back away from the idea for the upcoming school year. But school board members instead directed Hepburn to formulate a plan to close eight schools in 2025 or 2026, contending it was a tough, yet appropriate, decision.

“If you want us to offer great education to your children and create the Broward County of tomorrow, you want us to close campuses,” school board member Allen Zeman said during a May 14 meeting. “And you want us to spend that money educating your students.”

Where students are going

The enrollment declines for Broward, Duval and Miami coincide with the Covid-19 pandemic, which sent parents seeking new education choices for their children. How traditional public schools handled the pandemic, as well as disagreements over curriculum and subject matter, have also contributed to parents leaving, according to school choice advocates.

“If your product is better, you’ll be fine. The problem is, they are a relic of the past — a monopolized system where you have one option,” Chris Moya, a Florida lobbyist representing charter schools and the state’s top voucher administering organization, said of traditional public schools. “And when parents have options, they vote with their feet.”

Enrollment among charters has increased by more than 68,000 students statewide from 2019-20 to this school year, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. More than a third of that rise happened in Broward, Duval and Miami counties alone.

Private school enrollment across Florida rose by 47,000 students to 445,000 students from 2019-20 to 2022-23, according to the latest data available from the state. Much of that growth is from newly enrolled kindergartners, with only a small fraction of these students having been previously enrolled in public schools, according to Step Up for Students, the preeminent administrator of state-sponsored scholarships in Florida.

A growing number of families also chose to homeschool their children during this span, as this population grew by nearly 50,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, totaling 154,000 students in the latest Florida Department of Education data.

As all of these choice options ascend, enrollment in traditional public schools across the state decreased by 55,000 students from 2019-20 to this year, state data shows. But enrollment isn’t down everywhere. While Duval County has lost thousands of students, enrollment is up by more than 7,700 students at neighboring St. John’s County, the state’s top-ranked school district.

“The money follows the student and the family. It’s not embedded in a certain system or a certain framework,” DeSantis said in April when asked about potential school closures in Duval. “And so, the student and the family will be making those decisions.”

In Miami-Dade, there are expected to be nearly 15,000 new students receiving state funding for education this fall. But all of that growth is flowing to private and charter schools, leaving Miami Dade Public Schools bracing for a decline of more than 4,000 students next year.

What may appear to be a “great story” for a school district on paper actually represents a sizable enrollment dip, Ron Steiger, Chief Financial Officer for Miami Dade Public Schools, told school board members during a May 22 workshop.

“Those students are not ours,” he said.

The state’s scholarship program is expected to grow, which could lead to more students leaving traditional public schools. While most new scholarship recipients previously attended private schools already, there is space for 82,000 more statewide — nearly 217,000 total — to attend private school or find a different schooling option on the state’s dime next school year.

Further, there will be 22,000 additional scholarships available for families choosing to homeschool — up to 40,000 — and 16,000 more for students with special needs, according to projections from state economists.

School districts grapple with the decline

While school leaders in Miami aren’t considering closing schools amid an enrollment decline, the district is preparing to repurpose several campuses. The plans are already riling parents who worry about what their new schools could look like.

And the growth of school choice programs in Duval County is a key factor behind a budget crisis gripping the school district, according to school officials.

Traditional public schools in the area are projected to enroll some 10,000 less students in 2024-25, compared with five years ago, according to Dana Kriznar, interim superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.

Similar to Broward, school leaders in Duval are pushing to consolidate and close schools due to the enrollment decline, and preparing to cut more than 700 positions. The district is also expected to run out of federal Covid-19 dollars and is dealing with increased construction costs for previously planned projects, adding to the budget crunch.

Local communities are scrambling to head off cuts. Near Florida’s Atlantic Coast and surrounded by palm trees, Atlantic Beach Elementary has served generations of Floridians in the area just north of Jacksonville since 1939 with a signature art-deco style. But it’s one of many at risk of closure in Duval County, prompting city commissioners in Atlantic Beach to pass a resolution to save their “little pink school” from the chopping block.

Yet even if the Duval school board spares the classic pink campus, or Broward backs off from Virginia Shuman Young elementary, changes and closures are still bound to happen at traditional public schools in these areas.

“It’s a financial decision that we are making, but we are also not making it without compassion and engaging the community,” Duval County school board member Charlotte Joyce said during a recent workshop meeting. “If we don’t do something about this problem, then it could be the demise of traditional public education in Duval County.”

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