Families from Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria won’t have to worry about having transcripts or immunization records if they enroll their children in Florida’s public schools this month, state education officials announced Friday.
But for county school districts taking in the new arrivals, there is no guarantee the state will provide financial help to cover the cost of educating all those additional students.
The Florida Department of Education announced Friday morning public schools would get supplemental funding this fall only if they take in a minimum number of displaced Puerto Rican children — enough to increase district enrollment by at least 5 percent or a single school’s enrollment by at least 25 percent.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the state’s largest school district, with about 353,000 students enrolled last spring — would have to take in nearly 17,700 students from Puerto Rico in order to trigger the extra funding under the district-wide calculation. Broward County Schools, the second largest district in Florida with 269,800 students last school year, would need to add about 13,500 students across its district.
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We’re going to have individual schools that are going to get clobbered by this.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah
The state Department of Education did not answer questions from the Herald/Times by Friday evening about how it arrived at that formula and why funding wouldn’t be assured to cover all the new students.
Some state lawmakers had questions, too — and concerns.
Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, told the Herald/Times he’d spoken with DOE officials throughout the day to try to get answers and “to make the case that we’re going to have individual schools that are going to get clobbered by this.”
He posed the hypothetical of a school with 800 students, which would need to take in 200 Puerto Rican students to gain the extra funding. “What if they get 175, or 195? They get nothing?”
Diaz said he suggested DOE look at alternatives, such as offering schools the chance for a “hardship waiver” so the state agency can assess enrollment funding issues on a school-by-school basis. He said DOE officials “are considering those recommendations and I’m waiting to hear back.”
“They’re trying to find a place where they’re not breaking the bank but where they’re also providing what schools should get,” he said.
Rep. Bob Cortes — an Altamonte Springs Republican of Puerto Rican descent who has passionately advocated for Florida to help the island’s residents any way it can — similarly said he was in touch with DOE after the agency’s Friday announcement.
He said he asked state education officials “for full funding, not formula based.” He said he also wanted clarification from DOE that its orders apply to “all disaster victims, including Irma and Harvey. Not just Maria.”
Cortes noted that districts are already seeing the influx of Puerto Ricans arriving in Florida. He said Osceola County, which has a high Puerto Rican population, enrolled 165 new students just this week.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools said Friday 115 students from the island had enrolled so far after the hurricane, and the number continues to rise daily.
State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s order earlier Friday granted certain waivers to school districts through Nov. 1 to help reduce the red-tape of enrolling Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane — and to make it easier for teachers from Puerto Rico to be hired here if the disaster left them, too, without documentation of their professional certification.
We are pleased to remove barriers to enrollment and help these students and teachers return to the classroom.
Pam Stewart, state education commissioner
“Entire communities were destroyed and we do not know how long it will take to restore schools and other essential infrastructure,” Stewart said in a statement. “Therefore, it is critical that these students and teachers have the opportunity to participate in our state’s outstanding public education system. We are pleased to remove barriers to enrollment and help these students and teachers return to the classroom.”
Not addressed in the order: The part of a request by Diaz, Cortes and other lawmakers earlier this week that called for public schools to be assured extra state money to cover the unforeseen uptick in enrollment they now face, as well as waivers from a constitutional mandate capping class sizes.
Those topics — and others, like the question of whether the standardized testing window could be delayed — were separately covered in an 11-page question-and-answer memo from DOE that offered further guidance to school district leaders. (The memo wasn’t released with Stewart’s order; DOE officials provided a copy of it in response to initial questions from the Herald/Times.)
Legislators and school administrators had asked the DOE to make sure the new students would be counted in the annual fall enrollment survey, which is critical to calculating how much state money schools receive during the school year to fund their operations.
But in its memo, the DOE said that survey would proceed as planned next week to serve as a baseline. Additional Puerto Rican students enrolled after that time could be counted in a special “alternate survey” afterward — sometime before mid-December.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools quickly submitted a request Friday to conduct an alternate survey of its enrollment during the week of Dec. 4.
“Just in the past three days, over one hundred of these children have enrolled in our district, and there does not appear to be any sign of abatement given that flights from San Juan have not yet been normalized,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a letter to Stewart.
“To ensure we receive the full funding for these students, even though they may arrive for circumstances beyond everyone’s control after the traditional October [enrollment] survey period, we believe it necessary to make this request,” Carvalho added.
District spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said Carvalho and Stewart also spoke by phone on Friday and Stewart “has expressed sensitivity to these issues, so we’re hopeful.”
Post-Maria, Hillsborough County Schools has accepted 19 students from Puerto Rico and nine from the U.S. Virgin Islands so far, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
“We don’t know whether more students will be coming to Hillsborough County Public Schools because as we understand, many families are still trying to get off the island,” Arja said.
She added that since lawmakers return to Tallahassee next week to begin committee hearings before the 2018 session, “we expect legislators will be discussing whether this new guidance will meet the needs of this current situation.”
Diaz said DOE officials didn’t specifically explain to him where the 5 percent and 25 percent benchmarks came from. He said he deduced they have to do with the timing of the enrollment survey, since the additional students wouldn’t have been served in the first half of the fall semester.
“While I do have questions, I also do understand that these students would all be counted in the spring [enrollment survey] for full credit,” he added.
School funding dollars from the state are provided to districts in the fall based on enrollment estimates from the previous spring and summer, Diaz explained. The fall enrollment survey — as well as subsequent surveys in the winter and spring — are used to ensure accurate funding levels during the current school year in case the estimate was too low or too high.
Meanwhile, Diaz and Cortes remain highly complimentary of Stewart and Gov. Rick Scott for acting so quickly on other aspects of their request and for working with them to address the lingering concerns.
The two lawmakers — along with Republican Reps. David Santiago of Deltona, Rene Plasencia of Orlando and Mike La Rosa of St. Cloud — had sent a letter to Stewart on Monday, asking also that school districts be given more flexibility in enrolling students and hiring teachers from Puerto Rico, because residents fleeing the territory likely don’t have ready access to documents that would normally be required.
“Even before the order was issued, superintendents and school districts were heeding the call, and this gives a more cemented version by DOE that we are all in this together. We are completely in this to help these folks to come here,” Cortes said.
Diaz publicly praised the DOE on Twitter Friday: “We look forward to continued conversations on these issues w/ @EducationFL to make sure our schools have what they need.”
“We are thankful for @FLGovScott proactive leadership on this & the great cooperation w/ r getting from @EducationFL,” he added in a second tweet.
Among the other guidance DOE provided, the agency said schools wouldn’t be penalized for exceeding class-size caps because it’s “an extreme emergency.” The agency said Stewart could address a waiver request to the Legislature in February, if necessary.
On postponing the testing window for statewide assessments — which Miami-Dade, Collier and Lee counties have each requested — the DOE says it will assess that “when we know full effect of this year’s hurricane season.”
Stewart issued a second order Friday that also granted some leeway to the Florida College System, which includes Miami Dade College and Broward College.
Stewart waived student residency and records requirements so college students displaced by Maria could “enroll expeditiously.” She also waived the 1 percent cap colleges face in their ability to waive fees.
Both of Stewart’s orders — which Scott said came at his direction — were dated Friday and expire on Nov. 1. They can be extended in 30-day increments if state leaders choose.