Schools in Puerto Rico were closing before Hurricane Maria. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, for example, there were 167 such closures. After the storm, however, the question of how many schools would stay open was quickly supplanted by the question of how many schools will reopen---notwithstanding under what circumstances.
Low enrollment is now an even greater threat to the 1,100 remaining schools on the island, which, in turn, could result in a cut in federal funding. In early January, NPR reported that enrollment had decreased by 22,350 students (K-12) since Hurricane Maria, according to data from Puerto Rico’s Department of Education. That translates to 1 in 13 students that did not return to school. In comparison, more than 10,000 students migrated to the mainland in the past six years. One-third of them ended up in Florida.
Since Maria, the ratio of students for whom Florida is the destination has increased to nearly one in two. A Centro report, “Post-Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico and School Enrollment in Florida,” released in late December, states that a little over 10,000 students have enrolled in Florida school districts, with the majority concentrated in the counties of Osceola and Orange. This represents a 5% increase in the state’s total K-12 enrollment when compared to 2015.
Both the decline in enrollment in Puerto Rico’s schools and the number of school age children in Florida confirm migration estimates put forth by Centro in an October report entitled, “Estimates of the Post-Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico.” For example, 22,350 students is approximately how many students were predicted to migrate to the mainland according to the lower bound estimate. The report had also estimated that between roughly 10,000 to 15,000 students would migrate to Florida, which, again, coincides with the lower bound estimate for the state.
According to some reports, over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in the Sunshine State since September 20, 2017. However, it is still too early to determine how accurately these reports reflect the distribution of post-Maria migration. It could be that most Puerto Ricans settle in Florida. However, some may move on to another state, while others return to the island.
Thus far, school enrollment, as evidenced by the accuracy of Centro migration estimates, is a somewhat more reliable indicator---at least until more data is available---that many families expect Florida to be their new home. In the meantime, there are a host of needs (transfer and enrollment services, counseling, ESL and bilingual education, etc.) outlined in the December report.