Mind the facts about school district enrollment declines

A Jacksonville television station has a story tying enrollment declines in local public schools to the growth of Florida’s newly universal education choice scholarship programs.

There’s a problem with this narrative: The numbers don’t support it.

First Coast News reports that enrollment in Duval County Public Schools has declined by nearly 10,000 students this school year. Enrollment data collected by Step Up For Students, the organization that grants most of the scholarships in Florida (as well as my employer and the host of this blog), show that fewer than 900 students left Duval public schools to accept tax credit and Educational Options scholarships this fall. Another 1,324 new scholarship students previously participated in Voluntary Prekindergarten. Even if we make the generous assumption that 100 percent of those Pre-K students would have enrolled in public schools for kindergarten, growth of these two scholarship programs appears to account for less than a quarter of the enrollment decline in Duval County’s public schools.

For the past several years, Florida’s public schools have been blessed with enrollment growth as families flooded from out of state, making Florida the top destination for in-migration during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s possible that, as the pandemic wanes, this flow of new students is slowing. It’s also possible that issues affecting public-school enrollment nationally, like declining birthrates, are starting to show up in Florida. In districts like Duval, it’s possible that more families are moving to neighboring communities, though First Coast News reports enrollment growth has also leveled off in Clay and St. Johns Counties. There, too, it’s clear scholarship programs aren’t the sole culprit. They drew fewer than 100 new students from public schools in Clay County and fewer than 200 in St. Johns.

In the coming years, new data releases from the U.S. Census Bureau will shed more light on the drivers of enrollment fluctuations in Florida’s public schools. And in the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing more enrollment numbers that break down scholarship program growth by county.

For now, it’s worth keeping mind that any enrollment fluctuations in school districts are likely to stem from multiple causes, not just the growth of educational options.

This post has been updated to clarify that the data includes the state’s two largest scholarship programs, which were made universal under HB 1. It does not include the smaller Unique Abilities and Personalized Education Plan scholarship programs.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.