I recently wrote a piece for redefinED about how the Census Bureau projections spell troubled times ahead for Florida. Specifically, the Census Bureau projects a large increase in the youth population to coincide with an explosion in the elderly population. The Cliff Notes version: trouble ahead. Both the young and old consume state services in heavier amounts than average (primarily education and health care respectively) and tend to pay less in the way of taxes on average. The percentage of Florida’s population that will be in the working age population in the years ahead will bear what looks to be a crushing burden in paying for most of this.
The Census Bureau has more detailed projections that give more of a blow by blow of how the forecasts this will play out. First, let’s follow the blue columns. This is the Census Bureau projections of the 5-17 population. Note this figure underestimates the potential size of the school age population increase in several ways. First, Florida 4-year-olds can and do use the Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program. Second, 18-year-olds are often still in high-school. Finally, some children with disabilities remain in public schools until age 21.
With those caveats in mind, note that Florida’s 5-17 year old population goes from around 2.9 million in 2010 to a projected 3.2 million next year, then to 3.5 million in 2020, 3.8 million in 2025 and to a rather alarming 4.1 million in 2030.
So let’s just use rough numbers and say Florida has well over 1.2 million additional students on the way. Fortunately, there are options to deal with this, some or all of which may be used. Florida districts can surround existing school buildings with dozens of portables. At considerable expense, they can build new district schools. They can start running shifts at existing schools.
Perhaps Florida lawmakers will be wise enough to strengthen choice laws to help take the edge off of district enrollment growth. Today a combined 86,000 Florida students attend private schools under the Step Up for Students tax credit and the McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities.
The private choice programs represent an especially strong value to taxpayers because they allow students to be educated without the public expense of building new buildings. These costs prove quite considerable. Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, which opened in 2008, cost $63,000,000 to provide learning space for 2,000 students. Florida has far more than 1.2 million students projected to be on the way in the next decade and a half. A project like Island Coast High School can accommodate .0017 percent of that cohort.
I am confident a great many construction firms and bond brokers would love to either pave Florida over with new district schools or die trying. The red columns, however, show rather conclusively that is not a really an option. Florida’s elderly population is set to more than double between 2010 and 2030. This will translate into a greater demand for a variety of public services, strains on pension funds, and less in the way of tax revenue.
Absent some implausible spike in economic growth, these projections foretell fierce competition for limited public dollars between old and young. Note the elderly tend to be better organized and vote in much greater numbers than public school interests. Place your bets accordingly.