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Fla. Private Schools Take a Hit

Bolles Private School
Private school enrollment is off 15.7% from its high. Meanwhile, charter and home school enrollments are setting records.

Private school enrollment in Florida has fallen faster and further than public school enrollment. Though the numbers began dropping before the economy did, the recession and slowing in-migration from elsewhere in the United States receive most of the blame for the 4.2% dip last year and 15.7% drop since private enrollment peaked in 2003. But the rise of charter schools, which offer some of the advantages of private schools ? — smaller enrollments, local board governance, uniforms, parental involvement and mandatory parent “volunteer” hours — for free also is playing a role.

“$12,000 (in yearly tuition) versus zero is a pretty competitive edge,” says Skardon C. Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools.

The private school enrollment drop likely will continue this year. Seven Catholic elementary schools, 12% of the total in the three-county Archdiocese of Miami, closed in June, affecting 998 students. A charter school operator, Miami-based Academica, leased six of the seven schools to run its academies; a separate charter school leased the seventh parochial school. Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta says information is incomplete on how many of the students affected switched to another Catholic school, enrolled in the charter schools or moved to a traditional public school.

Enrollment Shifts
Year Public Schools Charter Schools Private Schools Home Schools
2,380,451 16,120 288,248 37,196
2,434,403 25,989 348,736 41,128
2,500,161 40,465 354,541 44,460
2,539,932 53,016 377,701 45,333
2,598,231 67,512 381,346 47,151
2,638,127 82,531 366,742 51,110
2,668,337 92,214 350,287 52,613
2,662,701 98,755 349,059 55,822
2,653,377 105,239 335,211 56,650
2008-09 2,628,754 117,602 321,298 60,913

Catholic school enrollment has fallen nearly 9% from its peak in 2005-06. James Herzog, Florida Catholic Conference associate director for education, says recent annual declines in Catholic school enrollment track the drop in public school enrollment and likely will fall 2% to 3% this year.

Private schools are working to market their strengths better, and leaders are encouraged by government programs that make it more financially feasible for parents of economically disadvantaged and disabled kids to attend private schools, Herzog says. Enrollment will rebound when Florida population growth resumes at its historical pace, he says.

Bliss, whose group represents 154 schools totaling 74,000 students, including elites such as Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale, Bolles in Jacksonville and Gulliver in Miami, says enrollment at his member schools is down 4% in the last couple of years but that may be attributable to two Christian schools dropping membership rather than to a broad-based decline.

School districts in Florida above the state average of 10.9% private school enrollment:
St. Lucie 12.6%
Escambia 12.2%
Alachua 11.9%
Palm Beach 11.8%
Brevard 11.4%
St. Johns 11.2%
He said member schools were worried in the spring about enrollment falling but as of April reported that 70% of students had re-enrolled. The concern now is whether families will be able to pay tuition should a family member lose a job.

While the decline in private enrollment statewide is noticeable, it only takes enrollment to the low end of historic bounds. The percentage of children in private schools has ranged from 10% to 13% in Florida’s recent past.