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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida House, Senate committees advance open enrollment measures



Students in K-12 public schools across Florida could attend any public school in the state so long as it's not at capacity, under open enrollment proposals that cleared their first House and Senate committees Wednesday.

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee advanced House Bill 669 from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, despite objections from Democrats. Later, a majority of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee also endorsed Senate Bill 886 from Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, with similar criticisms but less friction.

Both plans seek to remove geographic barriers parents and children face in terms of where a child can attend public school in Florida -- while giving priority to students who live within a school district already, as well as children of military service members. 

Sprowls' proposal would allow open enrollment starting in the 2017-18 school year, but there's a complication. Allowing students to attend schools outside their county would affect how state and local dollars are used to pay for schools.

Sprowls' plan calls for a fiscal study through Florida Polytechnic University to analyze how the local share of state education dollars could be transferred among schools and districts. But that study wouldn't have to be done until November 2017 -- a few months into the first year that open enrollment would be allowed.

"If we’re going in this direction, let’s study it first. Let’s know exactly what we’re doing before we pass the legislation," Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, said. "We’re getting ahead of ourselves."

Sprowls said how tax dollars would be shared and spent under open enrollment is not his first priority.

"The desire to create that opportunity for the kids is far more important than the study," Sprowls said. "We have a constitutional mandate to provide quality public education. ... I think that takes precedence over everything else."

Fullwood and Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, called on lawmakers to be honest about what the proposal really does: Promote charter schools and new traditional schools. They said it wouldn't help existing top schools, because they argued the best schools are most likely full already.

"This bill is the 'charter school marketing bill.' We should call it what it is instead of dancing around it," Slosberg said.

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the committee's chairman, said the bill is no such thing, because charter schools "already enjoy that crossing-the-county-line prerogative now."

Diaz and other Republicans on the committee rejected that the bill is aimed at charter schools, although charter school. They advocated that the measure promotes school choice and parents' ability to decide what's best for their own child.

"All we're doing is making it a little bit easier for them to take advantage of the public school education opportunity," Sprowls said.

In the Senate, members also discussed the finances of allowing open enrollment statewide, as well as how students would be transported to and from the school of their choice.

"This bill simply provides that you don't have to move to provide the best educational opportunity for your child," said Benacquisto, the bill sponsor.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said he has "serious reservations" about the plan because of the fiscal impact it could have on schools and districts.

"Until I have a real clear understanding of what that economic impact looks like, I can’t support the bill," he said.

Both Sprowls' and Benacquisto's bills now go to their respective chambers' education budget committees.

Another bill in the Senate that includes an open enrollment provision is also advancing. That bill -- SB 684 from Republican Sens. Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, and Don Gaetz, of Niceville -- contains similar provisions, but it is mostly focused on expanding school choice in high school athletics.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 2:40pm]


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