Everyone with kids in Florida public schools knows that the state’s schools are horribly crowded. What most people don’t know is that the state’s public schools have actually been getting less crowded over the last several years. And even less well appreciated is that the growth in charter schools has contributed significantly to the reduction in school crowding.
Measures now being considered by state legislators to limit or halt the addition of new charter schools would almost certainly reverse the progress that has been made.
The average size of Florida’s public schools rose steadily during the 1990s as student population growth outstripped the opening of new schools.
In 1993-1994 there were 2,867 schools serving 2,041,714 students for an average school size of 712 students. By 1998-1999 the state had opened 312 additional public schools for a total of 3,179 schools, but the number of students grew at an even faster rate to a total of 2,336,793, or 735 students per school.
Since 1998, however, the average number of students per school in Florida has actually been declining, reaching 685 students per school last year — that’s even lower than it was a decade ago. This reduction in school size is not just occurring because new, small schools are opening. Schools that were once more severely crowded now have fewer students bursting the seams.
To be sure, the progress in reducing school crowding has been less than many people want. But it is progress nonetheless, which is important to note. It is also important to understand how the state has been able to make progress in reducing school crowding.
Since 1998, the state has been adding new schools nearly twice as fast as in the previous years. Between 1993 and 1998, Florida added only 312 schools, compared with 616 new schools between 1998 and 2003.
The quicker pace is primarily explained by the large expansion of charter schools in recent years. Of the “extra” 304 schools brought online in the last five years, 231 were charter schools. Before 1998, the state had only a handful of charter schools.
Charter schools help reduce school crowding in several ways:
First, charters help facilitate the more rapid opening of new schools by attracting additional capital for school construction from the federal government, foundations and corporations. By tapping into more sources for funds, we’ve been able to open more schools faster.
Second, charter schools have drawn students away from crowded traditional public schools, easing those crowded conditions.
Third, charter schools are often designed to be small, not overcrowded, schools themselves.
Remember that families choose to attend charter schools voluntarily, unlike traditional public schools where students are often simply assigned. To attract students, charters have to offer features that families want, including smaller, less-crowded learning environments.
Traditional public schools face less pressure to reduce their size because students are assigned to those crowded, large institutions by the county school district, whether attending families like it or not.
The Legislature and some school districts are considering measures that would reduce or halt the addition of charter schools. If adopted, these measures would almost certainly reverse the progress that has been made in reducing school crowding.
Without the additional capital that charter schools generate for school construction and without the customer-oriented focus of charter schools on remaining small and manageable, crowding will almost certainly worsen.