Florida 'schools of choice' numbers soar in a year, prompting call for clearer definitions
Florida school districts dramatically increased their use of a loophole in the state's class size law last year, according to newly released Department of Education data that's bolstering lawmakers' call for changes to the rule.
By the numbers, districts identified 56 percent more of their schools as "schools of choice" in 2014-15 than a year earlier, meaning that nearly two-thirds of all schools carried that designation. In 2013-14, 39 percent of schools had the label, which allowed them to calculate class size as a schoolwide average rather than room by room.
Thirty-three school districts had more than 50 percent of their campuses deemed "schools of choice" in 2014-15, up from 27. Among those, Seminole County increased its count from 18 of 61 schools to all of them, Palm Beach jumped from 25 of 177 schools to 153 of 177, and Marion County grew its number from 5 of 53 to 50 of 53.
"This data the commissioner outlined is going to spur some legislative action," said Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, who requested the information a month ago. "It is time to stop playing shell games."
Legg suggested two possible courses of action. One would be to clearly define the term "schools of choice," which commissioner Pam Stewart noted in a letter to Legg has no set meaning.
At the very least, Legg said, the schools should have open enrollment with available seats, and some form of innovative academic programs. He criticized districts such as his home county of Pasco, where 100 percent of schools are listed as "schools of choice" despite several being frozen to admission from outside their attendance zones. Pasco also has very few magnet programs, he added.
By contrast, Hillsborough County, known for its aggressive magnet and choice program, listed just 13 percent of its schools in the category. Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins has said that could change for 2015-16, for which data is not yet available.
The other possibility would be to eliminate the loophole and require all schools, including charters and other nontraditional programs, to adhere strictly to the 2002 voter mandate on class size.
Legg, a strong supporter of school choice who runs a charter school, said he preferred the former option. Parents and children deserve choices, he said, and the Legislature tried to provide flexibility for public school alternatives meeting those goals.
He expected action in both the Senate and House.
"I've had in-depth conversations with (House Choice and Innovation chairman Manny) Diaz," Legg said. "He is sharing my concern."
Diaz could not be reached for comment.