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US Census Bureau Projections and School Choice

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

North Carolina lawmakers recently passed two very broad private choice measures that in combination will make well over half the state eligible for school choice. This inspired me to look into U.S. Census Bureau projections regarding trends in school age population. What I found ought to be recognized in debates over school policy in Florida.

Florida, in short, is set to be deluged in new students over the next two decades.


 So Florida has about 2,500,000 students today and can expect to have 4,100,000 + in 2030.  This raises the question of how Florida will educate these students. It seems obvious that no single approach is going to help Florida absorb an increase in students equal to the current size of the Georgia public school system.

An increase of this size raises huge facility and human capital issues. For this post, let’s simply focus on the facilities side. Florida passed a charter school law in 1996 and currently has around 179,000 students attending charter schools. So if the next 17 years are like the last 17 years, you can expect charter schools to absorb a little more than 10% of the increase. Anything that Florida lawmakers could do to speed this up would be highly desirable.

Tax credit and other private choice programs can also play a role. Florida passed the nation’s largest scholarship tax credit program and the McKay Scholarship Program for children with disabilities in 2001. Today these programs educate 60,000 and 26,000 students respectively.

The Step Up for Students Tax Credit program makes more than half of students eligible, but the program is not funded eligibility similar to the formula funded McKay Program. Corporate donations must be raised, and one would expect the current credits will hit an upper ceiling at some point.

McKay has a much smaller eligibility pool but funding for all qualified students who wish to participate. Both programs are the titans of their class around the country, but both will require policy updates and innovations if they are to make even a modest dent in the crowds looming in Florida’s horizon.

Options on improving these programs include creating new credits against different taxes in the case of the tax credit program. Both programs could broaden the allowable uses of funds, which would allow more parents to customize the education for their child by employing online programs, community colleges, universities certified private tutors in addition to full or part time enrollment in public or private schools. Such updates would increase the supply of school choice by broadening our definition of what constitutes a “school.” If such policies were pursued aggressively, they might provide overcrowding relief greater than that of charter schools, certainly greater than that provided by today’s laws.

Homeschooling has been the nation’s fasting growing choice option, and with outfits like Stanford and Harvard and others giving away courses for free there has never been a better time to home school. The Florida Department of Education shows strong growth in home-schooling in the state, but from a relatively low base of 79,000 in 2012.

The inevitable conclusion of all this is that Florida school districts will need to dramatically expand space regardless of what is done on the choice front. Parental choice programs are critical as they help the public school system to improve even at relatively low rates of direct utilization and Florida is going to need all the help it can get.

Special interest groups opposed to school choice should relax. The year 2030 will come and go with the school districts comfortably continuing their reign as the dominant K-12 delivery method in Florida. Moreover they will be educating far, far more students than today and will employ far more people than today’s districts.


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.