Florida schools locate 26,500 'missing' students as budgets kick into gear
Andrew Atterbury

Florida school districts have located scores of children who were at one point displaced by the coronavirus, essentially cutting in half the number of “missing” students state lawmakers are attempting to budget around for 2021-22, according to new estimates from economists.

Breaking it down: At an Education Estimating Conference on Thursday, state economists reported that the Florida’s latest K-12 enrollment projections came in about 26,500 students higher than midyear estimates from January.

That figure, aside from marking one of the most consequential K-12 enrollment forecasts in recent history, has serious budget implications as House and Senate leaders plan to allocate up to $350 million next year to address unaccounted-for students.

K-12 enrollment in Florida at one point was down more than 87,000 students compared to state projections as many students shifted to home-schooling and private schools during the pandemic or were otherwise deemed “missing” from their campuses. Top school officials in February described to lawmakers their efforts to locate students, such as launching widespread searches of fields in south Florida or asking law enforcement to suspend the licenses of young drivers who aren’t lawfully enrolled in schools.

Budget writers in both the House and Senate last week unveiled education spending plans that account for an enrollment drop of more than 48,000 students in 2021-22, putting aside $334.4 million and $350 million respectively for schools to draw from should those students return throughout the school year. The House is also requesting that $112.3 million in federal Covid-19 relief should be spent strictly on locating unaccounted-for students.

Reducing the approximately 48,260-student enrollment gap by 26,500 students would leave about 22,000 students still “missing” with roughly two months remaining in the school year. Some school districts are bracing for larger-than-normal kindergarten classes due to parents holding younger students out of school as a Covid-19 precaution.

What’s next: Based on the new enrollment forecast from Thursday, House and Senate education budgets could drastically change in the coming weeks.