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Despite 'missing' students, Florida education advocates say the need for school funding is greater than ever

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund says it’s not just the “missing students” who have suffered learning loss, but current students have struggled too.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nearly 90,000 public school students are “missing” in Florida as enrollment estimates have dropped amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A mid-school-year estimate by state economists projects that 87,811 fewer students have enrolled in public schools than were predicted to sign-up for the 2020-2021 academic year.

As the search is on to find out where those students are, school advocates on the First Coast are also pushing the state to reconsider how it funds districts.

After the Great Recession, school districts across the United States lost $600 Billion in state and local revenue in the years following. To avoid another huge deficit, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) put together a brief that recommends the state consider a more progressive funding formula.

“A decline in state funding to districts, it really impacts all of our public schools," Rachael Tutwiler Fortune, the education fund's president said. "It means less funding for facilities, less for teachers, less for specialized programs like sports and arts.“

Tutwiler Fortune explained that school districts are usually funded based on the number of students who receive face-to-face instruction.

Right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Florida Department of Education is allowing school districts to maintain funding based on their projected enrollment – as long as they offer in-person instruction five days a week.

This means the nearly 90,000 students classified as missing don't impact the school district’s funding for now, but will after this “hold harmless” policy comes to an end.

“It's important that state lawmakers think through how they're going to manage that transition, and to make sure that students don't see budget cuts when that happens," Tutwiler Fortune said.

It’s not just the “missing" students who have suffered learning loss, she added, but current students have struggled, too.

“The need for school funding is greater during this time, because our students really have fallen behind during this very unanticipated pandemic," Tutwiler Fortune explained. “And that means that students will need more one-on-one time with teachers. They will need after school programs, summer school or summer enrichment programs as well.”

The JPEF education funding brief is being shared with lawmakers now to encourage them to continue to help locate missing students and explore funding that prioritizes the most at-risk students and high-poverty schools.

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