CLEARWATER, Fla. – After seven years of slow but steady growth, Catholic school enrollment in Florida experienced a 1 percent decrease over last year, according to a preliminary report from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Total enrollment for the current academic year stands at 85,784 compared with 86,691 in 2017-18, a drop of 907 students. But as Floridians prepare to celebrate Catholic Schools Week, which starts Monday, it is important to put the numbers in context.
Despite precipitous drops in Catholic school enrollment in other states – national enrollment in 2017 was just over a third of what it was at its peak of 5.2 million students in 1965 – Florida has been the exception to the rule.
In 2010-11, 82,464 students attended Catholic schools in Florida. That number has edged up each year until 2017-18, with the largest increase in 2015-16.
It also is important to note that Florida’s recent enrollment dip coincides with a decrease in the number of students participating in state school choice programs, such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for economically disadvantaged families and the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. (Those programs are administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
In 2017-18, Catholic schools educated 18,690 FTC students. This year, that number has fallen slightly, to 18,428.
James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Council of Catholic Bishops, said the current enrollment decrease is not triggering alarms.
“We try not to get too high or too low about any one year,” Herzog said. “We just try to take it a year at a time. We look at (the numbers) to some degree, but enrollment has been stable for several years.”
Herzog noted that the last major enrollment dip came during the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008, after which enrollment leveled off and began climbing back up.
“The climb was fueled by the state scholarship programs,” Herzog said. “They’ve been a huge benefit to the students and families we serve.”
Enrollment in FTC, the nation’s largest scholarship program for economically disadvantaged K-12 students, dropped this fall for the first time in 14 years. The decline was caused by a slowdown in corporate contributions and has led to a gap between scholarship supply and demand.
The Department of Education reported that as of November, the scholarship was serving 99,453 students in 1,799 private schools. That’s 7,505 fewer than the same period last year, and 8,645 fewer than last year’s total. In the previous 13 years, the average annual growth rate was nearly 20 percent.
“We’re working hard to raise more scholarship funds, but we’re bumping up against a ceiling,” Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, said recently.
Tuthill recognizes that even a 1 percent dip affects many families who are being deprived of school choice, characterizing the number of students who are being turned away as “devastating.”