How Florida can make its public schools open to all students

Christina Sheffield’s son, Graham, was soaring ahead of classmates. She wanted a learning environment that challenged him, so she created one herself.

She pulled him out of a private school and created a customized education plan. Using her know-how as a certified elementary virtual school teacher, she enrolled him in a hybrid homeschool co-op and designed projects to enhance the curriculum his former private school as using.

But there was a missing piece in her son’s custom education plan: Their neighborhood public school.

That changed when the Tampa Bay area mom received the results of her son’s test for academic giftedness. Now officially identified, Graham, like other gifted homeschoolers, was able to access services offered by his local school district. He started going to a weekly gifted class at his zoned elementary school.

“It was his favorite day of the week,” Sheffield recalled. “After I picked him up on the first day, he said, ‘Mom, I finally feel like I fit in.’ That made my mom’s heart happy.”

Other students in similar circumstances might not be so lucky. Florida law allows homeschoolers to enroll in dual enrollment classes that lead to college credit, free of charge. Students participating in the state’s growing array of educational choice options have access to extracurriculars at their local public schools under the state’s “Tim Tebow law.” But that same guaranteed access does not extend to math class.

Districts can offer homeschoolers access to career and technical courses, or services for exceptional students, included gifted programming for students like Graham. And a new law allows districts to receive proportional funding for any student who chooses to enroll part-time while participating in other educational options.

But they are not required to offer this opportunity.

A new analysis by the advocacy group yes.everykid. evaluated policies in all 50 states and found that states vary widely in policies that grant students access to their local public schools, regardless of where they live or whether they want to enroll full-time.

Florida’s policies place it in the top 10 among states, but it has not yet guaranteed that every student has the right to access public schools on their terms.

Among the findings:

  • 24 states explicitly outline a policy for nonpublic school students to access public schools.
  • 15 states require districts to allow nonpublic school students to access public schools.
  • 10 states treat public education access as a student right.

Florida tied with Alaska for ninth place when it came to allowing nonpublic and homeschool students access to public schools. Idaho, which met every criterion used in the rankings, was No. 1, followed by Iowa and Minnesota, which tied for second place.

Though HB 1 codified the option for Florida public school districts to offer part-time enrollment options and receive prorated state funding, it left the decision whether to participate up to the individual districts.

Districts may be reluctant to embrace this new flexibility, and some state policies make this understandable. For example, state class size limits may add to the staffing headaches for districts hoping to accommodate students who enroll part-time.

The new law also creates a process for districts to identify regulatory barriers that are preventing them from responding to the needs of students and families.

For decades, some districts have resisted the oncoming tsunami of new education options. Others have chosen to ride it, and now have new flexibility at their disposal. The question is whether they will capitalize on that flexibility to meet the needs of their students.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.