CLEARWATER - More Florida high school students are taking dual-enrollment courses than ever before, but a new law pushed through at the end of this year's legislative session has left many school districts scrambling to pay the bill.
More than 50,000 students were enrolled in dual-enrollment courses during the 2011-2012 school year, and that number is growing. Yet, the law now requires school districts to pay tuition costs for students taking free dual-enrollment courses at state colleges without any additional funding; that will cost Florida school districts an estimated $40 to $60 million next school year - money that was not in school districts' budgets.
Now, school districts are scrambling to find a short-term solution for the unforeseen expense while also planning for the future.
"Frankly, we just didn't budget for it," said Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego. "If we had the money, we would certainly use it to pay for these classes, but we simply do not."
Details about the law are still emerging after many school districts have already finalized teacher contracts, schedules and preliminary budgets, Grego said.
St. Petersburg College will help Pinellas County Schools account for the extra $1.7 million cost for the upcoming school year through a new lease agreement that goes into effect Aug. 1, said Catherine Kennedy, the college's associate vice president of academics and partnerships. Though the school district will still have to pay tuition to comply with the law, SPC has agreed to pay rent next year for the use of school district facilities used for everything from college fairs to testing, Kennedy said. It's not a permanent solution, though, as both agreements will be renegotiated every academic year.
"Evening out is not always easy, but we're just hoping to ease the new burden that Pinellas County is going to have this year," Kennedy said.
It's a problem with which state colleges are intimately familiar.
Until now, colleges have been expected to absorb all dual-enrollment costs, said Craig Johnson, vice president of academic affairs at Hillsborough Community College. In Hillsborough County, that cost is about $1.1 million for more than 1,800 students.
"We're definitely one of those schools that told the Legislature, 'We can't continue going on with dual enrollment if there's no funding for us,' but we had no idea they were just going to turn around and charge the school district for it," Johnson said. "That wasn't what anybody wanted. ... Now we just hope it doesn't discourage schools from enrolling students."
Though there are costs associated with dual-enrollment courses, in the long run it brings the colleges revenue, Kennedy said. Between 80 and 85 percent of incoming students at St. Petersburg College are from Pinellas County Schools, and there are slightly fewer than 3,000 dual enrollment students.
"Of course if classes were full of traditional students, SPC would see extra money, but we really value having a great relationship with Pinellas County Schools," Kennedy said. "They provide a great service to us. If students are successful in the K-12 system and we can show them how wonderful SPC is, they'll end up enrolling here and getting jobs here, too, and ultimately help the community economically. It's a win-win."
School districts and colleges are looking for longer-term solutions, too.
HCC is working with the Hillsborough County school district to offer more dual-enrollment courses at high schools. If students attend traditional classes on campus, the school district has to pay standard state tuition, Johnson said; but if the classes are held in the high schools, the school district only has to pay the instructional costs for the teacher, which is about $1,800.
Other solutions for school districts hoping to give students a head start in their college careers are to offer more Advanced Placement courses and encourage students to take $80 College-Level Examination Program tests, allowing them to test out of some expensive college courses, said state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett.
To preserve the dual-enrollment program's future, though, school district superintendents are focused on meeting with local legislators throughout the state to change the law for good, Grego said.
"I want the best options for my students and I want the best options for my community and, right now, I have a college president that's saying, 'The best option is to provide dual-enrollment, and this bill is ridiculous'," Grego said.