Published: Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 12:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 3:41 a.m.
Great news: School enrollment in Polk County is down - albeit ever so slightly. It is 91,143 this year - less than 1 percent reduced from last year's start.
Even better news: There are 37,000 fewer students in Florida schools this fall than there were last year. Better news yet: This is the third consecutive year of school enrollment has declined.
Why is that good news? It means legislators, who have already slashed the state budget by $6 billion, and may soon have to trim another billion or so, won't have to "throw" quite so much money at education.
Is that really good news? Or is it a troubling indication that Florida's middle class is in decline?
Reports the Orlando Sentinel: "Lost jobs, bad mortgages and better career prospects are forcing thousands to pack up, and head north and west. They are pulling their kids out of school, leaving empty classroom seats behind."
Ironically, the enrollment decline may be linked to Florida's utter failure to invest in the very institutions that families need to prosper in today's uncertain times: quality education, good community colleges and excellent state universities. This, despite the noble efforts of these institutions and their educators to make up for meager funding through hard work and innovation.
MESSAGE TO TALLAHASSEE
The reports of diminishing enrollments recalled the warning issued earlier this year by the Florida State University-based LeRoy Collins Institute. In an updating of its landmark 2005 report "Tough Choices," UF economist Dave Denslow and FSU political science professor Carol Weissert speculate that an influx of baby-boomer retirees will help rescue the state from its economic doldrums.
"Of course wealthy retirees drive up the taxable real estate base and generate plenty of sales tax revenue with their spending," the updated report noted.
That's the good news. The bad news: "Weak public services … are going to diminish further the attraction of Florida to young working households," Denslow and Weissert predicted. "They may sort themselves to North Carolina, Georgia and other states where the housing is cheaper and the education systems are better."
Indeed, they may already be doing exactly that. "Do the dynamics suggest we will more than ever be an economy of high-income people and free-spending tourists together with those who serve them, waiting tables and giving pedicures?" the report asks.
The point being that declining enrollments, far from being cause for reducing funding, should be a klaxon call for Florida to increase its investments in education and other vital public services.
"The tab for amenities like educational opportunity, navigable roads and affordable housing is building during these lean years," Denslow and Weissert warned.
Is anybody in Tallahassee listening?