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Florida House panel approves public school choice bill

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

A bill that would allow parents more freedom to choose where their children go to school was overwhelmingly approved Tuesday by a House panel, even as some critics and educators worried the legislation is moving too quickly.

The measure (HB 1145) – sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor – was approved by the House K-12 Subcommittee in an 11-2 vote, with two Democrats joining the panel’s nine Republicans in voting for the bill.

It would allow parents to transfer their students to any school in the state that had not reached 90 percent of its capacity, regardless of county lines. It would also require districts to set up a process for parents to request that their children be removed from teachers’ classes.

Supporters have touted the legislation as the logical extension of the state’s school-choice reform movement, while opponents have raised questions about whether the process could be orderly.

Even speakers who were not overtly opposed to the bill raised questions about whether the legislation is too ambitious. Vern Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for Palm Beach County schools, said the July 1 effective date of the legislation could force school districts to adjust quickly to the new landscape.

“To try to have this implemented this next school year is something resembling organized chaos,” he said.

The issue is compounded, critics say, by the lack of hard information on how many parents might take advantage of the chance to place their children in virtually any nearby school.

“The problem to me is, we really have no idea whether this is going to be a few students, a lot of students or a flood of students,” said Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the panel’s top Democrat and one of the two votes against the bill.

Geller also raised questions about a provision that would have the state funding for each child “follow” that student if a transfer is made. He suggested that provision could harm districts with smaller budgets.

“They’re having a hard time keeping up as it is,” Geller said. “And I understand when we say it’s per pupil, but the fact is, there is some economy of scale there and when you start to lose that funding, I think it drags down the entire district.”

That drew a response from Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

“There should be no hesitation in allowing a student who has not been provided the right opportunity in whatever arbitrary, designated county they live in to be able to cross that line and get a better opportunity,” he said. “I will tell you that if that school district and that school that that student is supposed to be zoned for is doing their job and providing them the best opportunity, the parent’s not going to be looking for another one.”

Similar legislation (SB 1552) has also passed the Senate PreK-12 Committee on a party-line, 7-4 vote.

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BY Special to NextSteps

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