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Florida’s Race Against the Future, Part 2

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

In our last exciting episode, we discussed Census Bureau projections for a large increase in Florida’s youth and (especially) elderly populations between now and 2030. We briefly discussed the concept of “Age Dependency Ratios” (the number of young and elderly people divided by the number of working age people) as a measure of strain put on state state services and noted that Florida’s ratio is set to substantially increase. The post ended with projections regarding state Medicaid spending on the elderly and predicted a fierce looming battle between health care and K-12 for relatively scarce public funding.

The Census Bureau currently projects more than a 1,200,000 person increase in the Florida 5-17 year-old population between 2010 and 2030. The 5-17 year-old age bracket underestimates the possible impact of the increase in youth population on public schools in a variety of ways. First of all, Florida four-year-olds can participate in the Voluntary Pre-K program. In addition, it is common for 18-year-old students to still be in the K-12 system, and special needs students sometimes draw upon education services early and at times remain in school until age 21. Nevertheless, the 5-17 year-old age bracket represents the closest available to the student age population.

The nation, however, has experienced a “baby recession” to go along with the economic recession since 2008. For a variety of reasons, it is possible that Florida will experience less than the current projected increase in the 5-17 aged cohort.

We need only look at past enrollment trends however to gauge that enrollment growth is on the way. Florida’s youth population has been increasing steadily for centuries now and we have no reason to believe that it will stop. The only real question is just how big the increase will be.

Even if the youth population increases at levels under those currently projected by the Census, it could easily pose a very difficult challenge for Florida policymakers simultaneously coping with an aging population. In fact, the enrollment increase in public schools from the previous two decades dwarfs the increase in parental choice programs (see Figure 1 below). Charter and private school choice programs can help improve academic achievement and often help taxpayers avoid taking on debt or increasing taxes for new public school facilities.

Florida’s Race Against the Future, Part 2


This population growth has put pressures on school construction. The latest statistics available for spending per pupil on Capital and School Debt put the annual spending per pupil in Florida at $2,037 (see chart below). This figure is relatively high, but not shocking given Florida’s rapid enrollment increase. Note, however, that this level of spending on district facilities is happening despite the increase in charter and choice programs. In their absence, the districts would need to accommodate almost 300,000 additional pupils—necessitating more capital and debt spending, and less spending in the classroom.

Public choice and private choice programs can help improve academic achievement and often help taxpayers avoid taking on debt or increasing taxes for new school facilities. We ought not underestimate the opportunity cost of this spending—money spent on facilities cannot be used to hire teachers, reading coaches, or anything else. Also note that Florida’s current charter and choice programs lack the ability to absorb more than a fraction of the projected enrollment increase. The pace of charter and private choice program seats simply is not fast enough to do much more than to take the edge off of the projected cohort of students.


Florida’s Race Against the Future, Part 2


The lovely building pictured below cost $109 million to construct as a part of an overall $1 billion spent by Broward County on construction projects between 2004 and 2009. West Broward High School boasts an 8 out of 10 rating on, so good for them. With a 2,700-student capacity, however, it would take hundreds of new schools with the space of West Broward High—with a cost of tens of billions of dollars—to absorb the projected increase in enrollment.

Florida’s Race Against the Future, Part 2


In our next exciting episode, we will detail why those tens of billions of dollars will likely prove difficult to come by in the years ahead—as in very, very, very difficult. Rather than looking at private choice programs as some sort of threat, the reality in Florida is that the public school system currently has nowhere to put hundreds of thousands of new students. In other words, the system needs all the help it can get.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.