Lawmakers face burgeoning student enrollment growth

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Lawmakers will have to accommodate an additional 31,000 public school students when they craft a new state budget in the spring.

A new forecast approved Thursday by state economists and analysts shows 2.84 million students will be in the pre-kindergarten-through-high-school system beginning in the fall of 2017. It represents a 1.1 percent increase over this year’s record-level education budget, which funded a projected 2.81 million Pre-K-12 students entering Florida classrooms this fall.

Among the state’s largest counties, Orange is projected to have a 2.2 percent enrollment increase over this year’s school population. Hillsborough is at 2 percent and Palm Beach is at 1.2 percent.

Several major counties were projected to have growth rates below 1 percent, led by Miami-Dade at .1 percent, Pinellas at .3 percent and Duval at .8 percent.

A handful of smaller counties were projected to have fewer students next year than in this year’s classrooms, led by Jefferson with a projected 2.9 percent decline.

St. Johns County was the leader in growth, with a projected 4.1 percent student increase.

The numbers are far from final as state officials adjust and refine data about each school year’s population in a series of five estimates over the year, known in Tallahassee parlance as “calculations.” The most important calculation, in terms of the budget process, will coincide with the start of the 2017 Legislature in March.

In the long-term, the 1.1 percent student increase for the 2017-18 budget year is in line with a forecast projecting increases in the range of 1 percent over the next five years, ranging from .81 percent (23,000 students) in 2018-19 to 1.06 percent (31,000 students) in 2021-22.

The steady student population growth rate, which is an indicator for Florida’s economic wellbeing, is in contrast to The Great Recession years in Florida, when fewer students began showing up in classrooms starting in the fall of 2006 and extending until the fall of 2008, when there were 14,000 more empty seats than the prior year.

But a 1.1 percent growth rate is about half of what was happening in the boom years leading up to the recession, including the fall of 2004, which saw an increase of 51,000 students, representing a 2 percent increase over the prior year.

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.