© 2023 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Florida Superintendents Weigh In On 'Missing' Students

Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade Schools superintendent, talks during a food drive at Citrus Grove Elementary on Wednesday.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade Schools superintendent, talks during a food drive at Citrus Grove Elementary on Wednesday.

TALLAHASSEE --- Tying tangible experience to troubling data, five school superintendents addressed a House panel Thursday, with some asking for “more teeth” in a law to help find students who have gone unaccounted for this school year.

State economists estimate that 87,811 fewer students have enrolled in public schools than were predicted for the 2020-2021 academic year, which has been shadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As lawmakers try to pinpoint how much of the enrollment drop is a result of students leaving traditional public schools for private schools or homeschooling, and how many simply can’t be found, the superintendents tried to give the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee a clearer picture.

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said 10,006 fewer students than expected enrolled in his district’s schools. He said 78 percent can be accounted for in three categories: They moved out of state, moved to another county or enrolled in private schools.

But he said the remaining 22 percent, or roughly 2,200 students, “were unaccounted for or not represented in our enrollment numbers.”

Carvalho said about 900 students registered for the school year but “did not enter school at all.” Roughly 670 students were withdrawn by parents to enroll in different schools, but ultimately didn’t end up entering the new schools. Close to 500 students were “withdrawn due to non-attendance, that means excessive absences,” Carvalho said, telling lawmakers that “parents … refuse to send them to school.”

“Finally, there are some students whose whereabouts are truly unknown,” Carvalho said, with about 144 students fitting that description.

The Miami-Dade district has been able to locate and “re-engage” about 700 students, according to the superintendent, through “daily phone calls to parents, home visits, parent conferences, aggressive social worker deployment, even school police-led visits.”

District staff members have worked, even on nights and weekends, to bring students back to school.

“I can tell you that, in many instances, we ourselves have gone into the deep south, into the rural areas of Miami-Dade, to find students who are literally living on migrant fields. By the dozens,” Carvalho said.

Problems with finding students and getting them re-enrolled are persistent across many Florida counties. That includes Bay County, which has less than a tenth of the number of students of Miami-Dade and is located hundreds of miles away in the Panhandle.

Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt told the House panel Thursday some parents “lie to the courts, lie to police officers, they lie about where their (students’) location is.”

“I got to the point where I just quit sending them to truancy court. We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to no end. There’s no teeth in it,” Husfelt said.

Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, asked Husfelt about the grade levels of students who can’t be found. The superintendent said of 214 “missing” students, 45 were in elementary grades, 58 in middle school and 83 in high school, with the remaining number unknown “because the parents haven’t made contact with us.”

Husfelt wants lawmakers to consider legislation that would give additional “teeth” to a current law in being able to hold parents accountable.

Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, said she would like to see a proposal that would help superintendents.

“When you said we need statute, we need policy, I agree with you. We have got to hold these parents accountable,” Bell told Husfelt.

Panel Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, told reporters after the meeting that House members will work on a bill to address the problem. But Fine said it remains unclear what avenues to use in remedying the situation.

“I think that’s one of the things we’re going to learn. I think we can increase the penalties for truancy, not so much on the kids but on the parents. Look, I think this is child abuse, some of the stories that we heard,” Fine said. “Penalties, and then obviously resources. We could try to fix the court system.”

Students not enrolling this year could create a surge in kindergarten enrollment in the coming school year, which could create difficulties.

Education officials have theorized a significant portion of “missing” students could be children who were set to enter kindergarten this school year, but whose parents decided to delay their start because of COVID-19.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Donald Fennoy is familiar with what’s been dubbed “redshirt kindergartners,” as he has delayed his own child’s first school year amid the pandemic. He said many other families doing the same will have an effect.

“Our kindergarten class is expected to be the largest ever, at 14,500 students,” Fennoy said.

The “missing” students also have budget implications, as the state generally provides money to school districts on a per-student basis. Lawmakers will have to decide how to address the 88,000 unaccounted-for students when drawing up a budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year,

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he thinks a “substantial number of redshirt” kindergartners might enroll in the coming year.

“I think it’s important in this (upcoming) budget that we get it as close to right as we can, and that’s subjective. But I do believe that those 88,000 children are going to show up, coming into next August,” he said.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also said Thursday the lower enrollment will create a challenge when crafting a budget.

Sprowls sent a letter to superintendents this month urging them to find the “missing” students. In it, he wrote that an emergency order tying school funding to projected enrollment allowed districts to keep $700 million in funding this year “over and above what would otherwise be permitted under the law.”

“Both from a moral obligation, to make sure that those kids have an opportunity to learn, as well as from a budgetary standpoint as we build our K-12 budget, we need to be as accurate as humanly possible about how many kids we can expect to come back,” Sprowls told reporters.

Sprowls also acknowledged “a danger” of the Legislature undercounting the number of expected students as it approves a budget.

“There’s absolutely a danger, which is why I sent the letter,” Sprowls said. “Get the kids back, and then we can count the number.”

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.