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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

'A fire burning' to keep expanding school choice policies in Florida, Miami-Dade lawmaker says

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. during a House committee hearing in 2015

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. during a House committee hearing in 2015

The Legislature's approval of a massive education bill and other innovative policies this spring has reinvigorated the "school choice" movement in Florida, a key Miami-Dade lawmaker said Tuesday.

In the past few years, "there was a complacency," state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said. "What I heard from my colleagues was, 'so much has been done, we have to see what works.' I’m saying, 'we don't have time for that.' 

"I was pleasantly surprised this session," he added. "The stars aligned and we were able to push some things through... a lot of revolutionary things."

And Floridians can expect that wave of policies to continue in upcoming legislative sessions, said Diaz -- who's in line to be the next chairman of either the House Education Committee or the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee under incoming speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"It's clearly awoken," Diaz said of the push for school choice. "There is a political will you see in the incoming leadership; there is a fire burning. We’re headed in that direction and they’ll be a charge led from the top."

Diaz's remarks came during a luncheon in downtown Miami on Tuesday about the benefits of school choice in Florida. The discussion was sponsored by the James Madison Institute -- a Tallahassee-based free market think tank, which supports school choice policies.

Also on the panel were Julio Fuentes, president of both Hispanic CREO and the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

The charge for school choice comes against criticism from advocates of traditional public school -- such as Democratic lawmakers, some public school administrators and the state's largest teachers' union, the Florida Education Association.

They have argued that the Republican-led Legislature's preference of school choice alternatives continues to draw away funding and resources from conventional public schools, leaving them to languish. Two major lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of school choice programs are pending in Florida courts.

Diaz -- a former public school teacher and administrator who is now the chief operating officer of Doral College -- has been an advocate for school choice policies since he was first elected to the Legislature in 2012. He was the chairman of the Choice and Innovation Subcommittee the past two sessions and, this fall, is seeking re-election to his District 103 seat (against Democrat Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich).

Diaz told the audience of about 40 people at the InterContinental Hotel that while Florida quickly became a leader in choice opportunities under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, "other states have caught up."

"We need to be a leader and live up to the hype," he said.

Diaz called the omnibus education bill, known as HB 7029, one of the Legislature's greatest accomplishments on education policy during the 2016 session, because it included several different measures to expand parental choice and oversight in their children's education. Diaz was one of the negotiators who helped craft the final iteration of the bill, which passed the Legislature in the final hours of session, largely on party lines.

One of the most far-reaching policies in HB 7029 is dubbed "open enrollment." It will allow any public school student in the state to attend any school in the state so long as the school hasn't reached capacity. The policy takes effect in the 2017-18 school year.

"We’re finally moving in the direction where we’re breaking some of those molds, and folks understand the market, taxpayers and parents are demanding this customized education," Diaz said. "The definition of public education has changed. We’re no longer one schoolhouse or one size fits all. As a Legislature, we have to lay out those options and let the market decide."

He also praised a Legislature-approved pilot program to test competency-based education as "the ultimate in customized education."

The program -- approved for five years in Pinellas, Palm Beach, Lake and Seminole counties and at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville -- seeks to let students advance through school at their own pace, letting them excel if they can prove they've mastered what they should be learning. However, critics complain about the collection of personal data necessary to monitor students’ progress.

"We should start with the premise that every child can learn… but we can’t do with with a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach," Diaz said.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2016 4:40pm]


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