DeSantis’ School Choice Push Leaves Florida Public Schools Facing Closures

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ relentless efforts to expand school choice have led to a boom in charter, private and homeschooling enrollments, but the trend has left many public schools struggling with plummeting student numbers and the looming threat of campus shutdowns.

Duval County Public School District, the state’s sixth-largest and the nation’s 20th largest, is now considering closing campuses due to the dramatic decline in enrollment. Similarly, Broward County Public Schools, Florida’s second-largest district, has evaluated plans to shutter up to 42 campuses in the coming years, while Miami-Dade County has also seen a substantial drop in student numbers.

The shift towards private education has been remarkable. From 2019 to 2023, more than a third of the approximately 68,000 privately enrolled students in Florida came from Duval, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, according to data from the state’s Department of Education.

DeSantis’ March 2023 legislation promoting school choice eliminated financial eligibility restrictions and school enrollment caps, further fueling the trend. In 2023, private school enrollment from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade jumped by nearly 29,000 students compared to the previous year, with 31 Florida school districts having 10% or more of their total pre-K to 12th-grade students in private schools.

The steady rise in school choice and private school enrollment over the past decade has seen more than 600 new private schools open in Florida since 2013, with about 120,000 students choosing private education over public.

Some attribute the exodus from public schools to controversies surrounding the promotion of unpopular social causes, such as critical race theory, and incidents like Duval County schools having to cancel a survey that asked students as young as 10 about their sexual activity and gender identity.

As conservative majorities have taken control of several Florida school boards, including those in Miami-Dade, Sarasota, Duval, Martin and Clay counties, the push for school choice shows no signs of slowing down. While advocates argue that competition will ultimately improve education quality, public school districts are left grappling with the consequences of a rapidly changing landscape.