Lawmakers propose constitutional overhaul for Florida school districts

Florida school districts would no longer be defined exclusively by county lines, under a constitutional amendment proposed by two state lawmakers.

If passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, the amendments would allow the state or local governments to create new school districts — a concept analogous, in some ways, to the Recovery School District that helped transform the school system in New Orleans, or the Achievement School District in Tennessee.

Cities would be able to run their own school districts under the proposal. Local governments, like city or county commissions, could take the place of existing school boards. And the Legislature would have the power to abolish school districts by law.

The amendment, proposed in resolutions filed Tuesday by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, would shake up Florida’s current constitutional regime, which states that “each county shall constitute a school district” with the power to “operate, control and supervise all free public schools” within its boundaries.

The Tampa Bay TimesGradebook talked to both sponsors of the proposal.

Brandes told the Gradebook on Wednesday that his goal is to create more flexibility in the governance of the state’s school systems. As it stands now, he said, the constitution limits any ability to revamp the model, even if changes are needed.

“Throughout state government, the state can dissolve counties and combine them. The state can dissolve cities and combine them,” he said. “But they have no power over school boards without going to the constitution. Maybe it’s time to take those out of the constitution and allow the Legislature to have more review of school boards.”

Caldwell suggested the proposed new rules would provide more local control to small communities caught up in large countywide bureaucracies. He mentioned small island towns in his home county, as well as the struggling schools of south St. Petersburg highlighted in the Times’ Failure Factories series.

The existing constitutional provisions have thwarted other changes in the past, like a proposal to create a state-level charter school authorizing board. Attempts to create unconventional district lines have picked up momentum in other states in recent years, but it’s not yet clear whether such an effort will gain traction here.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)