Mar 28, 2024 - News

Miami-Dade district's budget suffers amid voucher expansion

Gov. Ron DeSantis signing HB 1, with two young students next to him.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs HB 1 to expand taxpayer-funded school vouchers across Florida. Photo: Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As Miami-Dade County Public Schools begins its budget discussions for the 2024–25 school year, the policy impacts of the 2023 law that expanded school choice for all Florida students are finally coming into play.

Why it matters: HB 1 eliminated financial eligibility restrictions for the state's voucher program, meaning more state funds are flowing to private education and less money is available to public school districts.

  • "It affects our budget," Miami-Dade Schools chief financial officer Ron Steiger told board members earlier this month at the first of four budget workshops.
  • Financial setbacks for the Miami-Dade district were already expected, as federal dollars from the pandemic end this summer and South Florida's ever-rising cost of living presents a challenge for recruiting and retaining teachers.

The big picture: The voucher program next school year is expected to again grow by more than 50%, meaning the program has doubled in size in two years, Steiger said.

  • For the first time in recent years, the district is projecting a decrease in enrollment of about 4,000 kids, which, according to Steiger, is "pretty much directly related to the growth in scholarships and the overall shrinking population of youth in Miami-Dade."

Between the lines: HB 1 didn't impact public schools much this year — the first school year it was in effect — because lawmakers simultaneously increased per student funding allocations by 6%.

  • Lawmakers this session increased the allocation by just 2.5%, which "isn't going to meet a lot of our increased costs," Steiger told board members.
  • He said the cost of a rising number of vouchers didn't leave enough money to give districts a similar funding increase to last year.
  • "They couldn't do it," he said. "They had to fund too many kids."

Caveat: Financial predictions discussed earlier this month are based on the legislative budget that has yet to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Flashback: DeSantis championed HB 1 as expanding school choice to "every single student" in Florida, but critics argued it amounted to welfare for affluent families and presented long-term risks to public school funding.

  • The Florida Policy Institute and the Education Law Center estimated the state's universal vouchers would cost $4 billion.
  • In Miami-Dade County, the majority of students who obtained a voucher this school year were already enrolled in private schools, the Miami Herald reported.

What they're saying: This year's budget is "about where our estimate was," FPI senior policy analyst Norín Dollard tells Axios. "It's not surprising that the effects [of the program] are being seen this early."

  • "We're going to continue to feel it, and districts are going to be strapped because of it," she says.

Bottom line: The district is in a better position now compared to the start of the legislative session, as a few bills that might've impacted the district negatively didn't come to fruition, Superintendent Jose Dotres said to board members earlier this month.

  • Even with the 2.5% student allocation increase, Dortres said, "it will be a difficult budget to manage."
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