Where have all the students gone?

Before we moved to Florida, I was part of the finance and economics staff for a state legislature. I drafted proposed legislation and was responsible for quantifying the cost / budget impact of it. I have found the wholesale destruction of public education in this country fascinating not only from a political standpoint, but from a financial standpoint.

If millions of Americans have decided to permanently switch their kids from public schools to private schools and homeschooling over the past year – for whatever reason, and there are many, like irrational fear of covid in schools, prisonesque covid restrictions, school violence, the widespread adoption of critical theory in classrooms, parents having the opportunity to have a home-centered life and deciding they love it, whatever – that should present a major financial shock to school districts. Systemic reckonings are rare in public finance because of how decentralized the municipal bond market is, but this truly might be one of them.

Sure, the CARES Act and other legislation have provided a massive financial influx for public education (most of which hasn’t been tapped), but that will not help school districts cash flow over the long run. If you look at how education is funded in this country, not a lot of regular funding comes from the federal government (this is a misconception many people have). Most of it comes from state governments, who offer per-pupil payments to districts out of state tax revenues (which mainly come from income and sales taxes) and local governments (who assess property taxes). Education spending is generally around half of state budgets.

I have been insanely curious how school districts have not experienced this shock already. Turns out, in Florida at least, the state has been holding districts financially harmless by not adjusting their per-pupil funding in the budget. I assume states are able to do this because of temporary federal funding.

In Florida, that free ride ends in October. Some school districts are starting to worry. Jackson County Schools, in the sparsely populated Florida panhandle, has seen homeschooling double. The district expects to lose nearly $2 million in funding from the state each year, which will force them to cut dozens of teachers. One can only imagine what the experience will be in large metro areas.

However, in my recreational research, I have stumbled upon a far more interesting phenomenon: Because states have been holding school districts financially harmless, many of them simply have not cared to track students’ learning environments at all. They are getting the money regardless of how many students they are educating, so they are not tracking student loss. I’m not kidding. They don’t even know how many students are being homeschooled or have transferred to public schools. In fact, most of them can’t even answer how many of the kids who are not showing up for Zoom classes are even being educated at all. The state could have a ton of drop-outs – likely does have a ton of drop-outs – and no one in the school system cares because, for the time being, it’s not how they get paid.

Take a moment and consider how messed up that is. And this certainly isn’t a Florida-exclusive issue. I would be willing to bet a lot of kids in places with forever lockdowns got sent to work somewhere to help support their families, which happens in a lot of recessions. This is why electing people who think all Americans have the luxury to day drink and watch Netflix and stay “safe” from a seasonal illness with a 99% survival rate is insane.

I say this all the time, but the virtual learning shtick is a lose-lose scenario for people who have their kids in public schools. Virtual or brick-and-mortar schools, either way, the public school systems across the country are not being run by adults who have the best interests of children in mind. When the president of the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that she did not feel safe returning the classroom from a beach in Puerto Rico, she wasn’t exactly an outlier.

From the Tampa Bay Times, an article in February, when the state legislature was in session:

Florida legislators and local education officials are trying to pinpoint what happened to nearly 90,000 “missing” public school students, as public school enrollment estimates have dropped amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A mid-school-year estimate by state economists projects that 87,811 fewer students have enrolled in public schools than were predicted to sign up for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Imagine a school district just closing. That’s the size of this problem,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.

The Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research released the latest student-enrollment projection on Jan. 25, but it remains unknown how much of the drop can be attributed to students leaving traditional public schools for private schools or homeschooling.

“I hope it turns out that they’re all being homeschooled or in private school, and their parents just forgot to turn in a piece of paper,” Fine said, adding that he suspects a number of students aren’t being educated at all.

“We could have 9-year-old elementary school dropouts out there,” Fine told the News Service. “This will arc the course of their entire lives. Students are suffering enough because of the changes that had to be made because of COVID, some justified, some not. But to not go to school at all is a disaster.”

Student enrollment has an impact on schools’ funding, Fine pointed out to members of his committee during a meeting last week.

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order requiring schools to provide in-person instruction when the school year began last fall but allowed families to choose whether to send their children back to campus in person or sign up for remote learning. Under Corcoran’s order, school districts aren’t punished financially for students who don’t show up in person.

School districts typically are funded based on the number of students who receive face-to-face instruction. But, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Corcoran is allowing school districts to maintain funding based on their projected enrollment, as long as they are provide in-person instruction five days a week.

But Fine suggested the state shouldn’t be paying for students who aren’t in the system.

“Schools are getting the funding for these 90,000 students who are not attending,” Fine told his panel.

Fine told the News Service that lawmakers have the authority to address the situation.

“We as a Legislature could say, there will be no more phantom funding,” Fine said in a phone interview Monday. “That will create an incentive on the part of the school districts to find these kids.”

State economists won’t know until the summer how many public school students might have gone to private schools or are being homeschooled.

Florida Association of District School Superintendents CEO Bill Montford said education stakeholders have a “moral and financial” obligation to find out where students have gone.

“About 88,000 fewer students showed up this year than what we had budgeted for,” Montford, a former Democratic state senator from Tallahassee, told the News Service on Monday. “So, what happened?”

Montford, a former Leon County superintendent of schools, blamed the number of unaccounted-for students on “a multitude of factors, a lot of which centers on COVID.”

“We’ve got to dig into it district by district, to see where these losses really are,” he said. “It’s important for two reasons. One is, we absolutely have to know where these students are, not from a financial standpoint but more for their personal good. We’ve got issues like human trafficking and things like that that have nothing to do with school budgets. So most importantly, where are the children?”

The other reason why Montford said it’s imperative to learn where students have gone is budgetary.

“We’ve got to be careful when we budget for next year, because the way it works is, if there are less students who show up, districts don’t get the money,” Montford said.

Montford and some of the superintendents in his organization have a theory about the drop in projected enrollment. They believe kids they call “redshirt” kindergarteners may be sitting out their first year in school.

“We think that, out of an abundance of caution, a lot of parents said ‘I’m not going to send my kid to kindergarten’” during the current school year, he said. Instead, they’ll wait until COVID-19 infections begin to dwindle, he added.

Florida lawmakers have been considering the issue since committee weeks began in early January, in advance of the March 2 start of the 2021 legislative session.

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education earlier this year that the trend of missing students in his district skews toward younger grade levels.

“The troublesome thing is that the students we’re missing are the youngest. Across the state, we’re looking at kindergarten and first grade,” Grego, who is president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, told the panel on Jan. 13. “In Pinellas County, we have child study teams in every school that are trying to find students. So it’s not the percentages here or there. It’s those students who have not appeared, and we’re wondering where they’re at.”

There is a somewhat amusing angle to all of this, which is that these same educators are quite up in arms over the widespread adoption of voucher programs this year. On the basic question of what is the correct thing to do with the money, if education in the state has been de facto privatized thanks to the policies educators themselves have been pushing, then that is where the money should go.

No sane taxpayer would argue that it is appropriate for school districts to be paid to educate tens of thousands of phantom kids. If parents think the school districts have failed to offer a passable education to their children, that’s sort of the end of the question. The school system has failed to perform its legal duty and recourse should be funded not the people who defaulted on their obligations. They are seemingly hoping that people will be more upset at money going to schools that – gasp – talk about Jesus and character than they will be at the fact that educators don’t even care that the kids in their communities are receiving an education at all.

If you have 90,000 unaccounted for kids, what the hell have you even been doing?

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