Florida’s legion of ‘phantom students’ could lead to funding cuts

Report: Nearly 90,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools than state projected

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Imagine all the students in the Clay County and the St. Johns County school districts stopped coming to school, and you’ll get an idea of the massive shortfall of K-12 kids that were expected to enroll in Florida public schools in the 2020-2021 academic year but did not.

The Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research released its mid-year student enrollment projection Jan. 25, showing roughly 87,811 fewer students attending than last year’s projection, which formed the basis for this year’s school funding.

“Right now, we have 90,000 students getting $700 million of phantom funding for phantom students that don’t exist,” State Rep. Randy Fine, chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said.

“Some of those 90,000 children could be being homeschooled and their parents just didn’t turn in a form. That’s not a big deal. Some of these kids could be going to private school and their parents just didn’t turn in a form telling the school district, that also is not a big deal. But a large number of those 90,000 children are not going to school at all.”

The report broke down the shortfall by county, showing the difference in the number of expected students that were budgeted for this school year compared to the number that actually enrolled. The full-time equivalent (FTE) figure doesn’t directly translate to a literal number of students, but is a metric used to calculate funding based on enrollment of respective school districts.

School DistrictStudent Shortfall
(2020-21 mid-year FTE estimate compared to appropriation)
Percentage difference
St. Johns-642-1.4%

Of the 11 counties in Northeast Florida covered by News4Jax, the most-impacted district is Bradford County, which received funding for 350 more expected students than are currently enrolled. That amounts to a nearly 12-percent deficit.

“We are aware of the shortfall of students and are actively investigating the issue,” Bradford County Public Schools Superintendent David Harris told News4Jax. “Combined efforts of law enforcement, truancy, and school administration are working through the process of identifying where and why students are not in school.”

The shortfall of students is widely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of attempting to reopen schools safely in the Fall 2020 semester.

As part of the assurances in their Spring 2021 Re-Opening Plans, Florida’s 67 school districts were asked to include their plan for locating students. The department’s Nov. 30 emergency order required districts to conduct outreach to families and search for students who were expected to enroll in school but did not.

“We know that parents may not have notified the school district if they moved to another district or out of state,” Florida Department of Education Spokesperson Cheryl Etters said. “Districts could – and some did – use ESSER funds to hire additional social workers and other staff to actually go door-to-door to locate students to ensure maximum in-person enrollment and participation in school.”

Because school funding is tied to the number of students, with each student representing approximately $7,000-$8,000 in state funding to that district, the large deficit would normally result in a massive funding slash. This academic year, however, the districts were shielded from that formula by the two FDOE emergency orders, which instructed the Legislature to fund districts based on the projected enrollment rather than the true FTE figure.

Once the emergency order expires at the end of the 2021 Summer semester, Fine said his committee and the Legislature may decide to resume funding school districts based on the actual FTE calculation, which he said would heavily incentivize those districts to “find” the missing students.

“Right now, they have no financial incentive to find them,” Fine said. “In fact, they have a financial incentive not to find them because they get the funding and they don’t have to provide the education.”

Another survey of students in public schools is scheduled for February, the results of which could see these student deficits shrink.

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