Tallahassee, FL - With Florida’s budget already in a deep hole, state lawmakers got another round of sobering news Monday with analysts reporting that public schools are poised for their largest enrollment spike in six years.
Another 16,946 students are expected to crowd Florida classrooms next fall, increasing the demand for dwindling dollars even as legislators struggle to close a spending gap likely to top $3 billion. The enrollment jump marks the third consecutive year of rising student counts, and could demand an additional $115.8 million in classroom dollars, based on current funding levels.
“We’re going to work very hard to maintain our funding in Pre-K-12,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the Senate’s school budget committee. “But enrollment growth is clearly one more pressure in an already difficult year.”
Florida has more than 2.6 million public school students. And with school funding absorbing $18 billion of the state’s $70 billion budget, lawmakers have been trying to trim costs as the economy soured.
This year’s budget includes an average $1.22 per-student spending increase, a modest set-aside that may be tough to match as legislators face a tough economy unaided by federal stimulus money that pumped more than $3 billion into the current spending plan.
If there’s a silver lining to the gathering clouds, rising school enrollment does suggest that Florida’s economy may be steadying, officials said. For three straight years ending in 2008-09, Florida schools lost enrollment as layoffs and the collapse of the construction industry forced a decline in the state’s population for the first time since shortly after World War II.
“The decline does seem to have ended and we may be seeing a little bit of a turnaround,” said Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. “The school increase is very small. But we’ve also seen a slight increase in employment numbers and a rise in residential electric customers. People are no longer leaving Florida the way they were.”