Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Nearly 88,000 students, 3 percent of Florida’s anticipated 2.76 million K-12 public school enrollment, are “missing” and unless the state’s 74 school districts find and re-enroll them, they could collectively lose up to $700 million in funding next school year.

In a Thursday letter to school district superintendents, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, warned of “significant budget implications” fostered by the “alarming” enrollment decline if lawmakers restore the standard funding process in state’s fiscal year 2022 budget, which goes into effect on July 1.

In a July executive order, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran allowed districts to be funded on “pre-COVID-19 student membership forecasts” and waived July and October surveys that adjust allocations to actual enrollments.

“This ‘hold harmless’ provision has allowed school districts to retain $700 million of taxpayer funds over and above what would otherwise be permitted under the law,” Sprowls wrote. “However, this accommodation does not reflect a fundamental change in how Florida funds our school system.”

That’s because the “accommodation” is temporary and “the Florida House intends to align the per-pupil funding for our K-12 schools to the actual enrollment in those schools” when the 60-day 2021 legislative session begins March 2, he wrote.

Sprowls cited an October estimate by state economists that projected 87,811 fewer students enrolled in Florida public schools during the fall semester than forecast.

“Imagine a school district just closing. That’s the size of this problem,” said House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, in October. “We could have 9-year-old elementary school dropouts out there.”

It is uncertain how many of the “missing” 87,811 students are enrolled in private institutions or being homeschooled, but lawmakers and education professionals fear some are simply not going to school and not receiving any education at all.

“The welfare of these children is of paramount importance. We have a moral obligation not to allow any of these children to slip through the cracks in the system,” Sprowls wrote.

In December, the Miami-Dade School District, the nation’s fifth-largest with 357,249 enrolled students, said it was uncertain of the whereabouts of about 1,000 students.

The Broward County School District, the nation’s seventh-largest with 256,472 enrolled students, said about 800 students were “missing.” Superintendent Robert Runcie told ABC Local 10 News in December that habitual truancy rose from about 1,700 students last year to more than 8,000 in the first semester.

The Monroe County School District reported 257 fewer students showed up at public schools in The Keys during the first semester than last year.

In his Thursday letter, Sprowls said lawmakers want school districts to spend federal COVID-19 pandemic assistance allocations on “deferred maintenance,” not to finance recurring budget items.

“While these funds are designed to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, this massive windfall also presents very real risks to the sound management of our school districts,” he wrote. “With these resources, school districts have the opportunity to replace aging HVAC systems, retrofit older windows and doors, install air purification and cleaning systems, and complete other renovations that improve air quality and reduce the risk of viral and environmental health hazards.”

With Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida Leads $96.6 billion budget request calling for an increase in state per-student allocations from 7,786.61 this year to $8,019.30 next year, districts have plenty of incentive to find their “missing” students.

“The Florida House strongly encourages you to work with every available state and local resource, including social services agencies and law enforcement, to locate these missing children and if they are still residents of Florida, ensure they are properly enrolled in a Florida K-12 education option,” Sprowls wrote.

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