Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Education

Florida school districts seem unlikely to take the bait as House promotes uniforms

If there was a hot education topic in Florida this spring, it was student testing. But not in the state House of Representatives.

There, under the guidance of K-12 Committee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, the talk focused on collared shirts and khaki shorts.

Citing the need to improve school security, Adkins sought to persuade districts to adopt mandatory uniforms for elementary and middle schools. As an incentive, she wanted to offer districts $10 per student, with a cap of $10 million statewide, first come, first served.

House members loved the idea, with just eight opposing the bill. It failed in the Senate, though, with senators saying the money could be better spent.

The concept resurfaced in the give-and-take of the Legislature's June special session. When all was said and done, the $10 million allocation was approved.

But are school districts in a position to take advantage of the cash? Given the tight deadlines, the answer appears to be "no," unless they already have a policy regarding uniforms in place.

Lawmakers gave superintendents until Sept. 1 to certify that they have a districtwide policy. Yet, state rules require weeks between public hearings.

"The timeline just doesn't make sense or is not truly practical," said Duval County superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has proposed the idea to his School Board.

Vitti said he was pleased lawmakers addressed the issue. But public input is crucial, he said, and lawmakers didn't provide enough time. He didn't expect to act before mid 2016.

"When I engaged the board, I said it wasn't necessarily about the financial incentive," he said. "I think this is the right approach for Duval right now."

Duval sits in a distinct minority, though. Districtwide uniform mandates are not widely popular in Florida.

More often, individual schools make the move.

Even with the money in play, for instance, the Lake County School Board continued to approve school requests without a thought to a broader rule.

"We do not do it districtwide," spokeswoman Sherri Owens said.

District leaders in the Tampa Bay area indicated they would keep things that way, too, regardless of the incentive.

Hernando schools, for instance, face a $6.3 million shortfall. The extra $150,000 or so could help, district spokesman Patrick Keough said via email.

"However, as of now, the decision will still be on a per school level and based on the consensus of the parents," he said.

With the first day of school fast approaching, changing the dress code could prove a large imposition on families, Pinellas School Board vice chairwoman Peggy O'Shea observed.

"Many parents have already purchased clothes for their kids for school," O'Shea said. "I don't think, at this point, it is something we will take up, certainly not between now and Sept. 1."

Hillsborough School Board member April Griffin counts herself as a fan of uniforms, for many of the reasons the House promoted the idea. She also likes the idea of adding more than $1 million to district coffers.

But Griffin remains a staunch supporter of site-based management, making a board mandate for standardized clothing across more than 150 campuses with varied cultures a difficult sale to her.

"We have to balance between wanting to get the money and wanting to be sure our school communities are in charge of their own environments," Griffin said. "Personally, I like uniforms. But some schools don't."

As in Pinellas, Hillsborough administrators have not presented any new dress code policies for board consideration.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said he had no intention of doing so, either. Unlike the other counties, Pasco has no schools with uniforms and has fielded few requests to add them.

Steve Luikart, Pasco School Board chairman, suggested that the incentive of $10 per student wasn't intended to benefit school districts.

"I just see it as another little legislative deal where it will help out some charter schools," Luikart said. "I can't think of a district that could afford to take it on."

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the goal was to support safe schools.

"I believe school uniforms promote a safer, more focused classroom environment that better facilitates student learning," Crisafulli said via email.

"As a parent of two students who have attended a public school with uniforms, I saw first-hand how much easier it was to prepare my children for school and how much safer and more disciplined my children's school environment was."

He stressed that no district is being forced to change its rules.

"The funds for school uniforms included in the budget are voluntary, not a Tallahassee mandate, and I encourage districts to seriously consider adopting uniform policies," Crisafulli said.

It could prove a one-time shot.

Senators balked at the expense during this year's session. They ultimately accepted the item as a House priority in exchange for a Senate priority — just as they okayed $44 million in bonuses for teachers based on their SAT or ACT scores.

"The Senate acquiesced to the House," Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said.

Legg, who said the money should have gone to classroom technology, raised strong doubts the funding will return in the 2016-17 budget.

"The Legislature sometimes has well-intended, harebrained ideas," he said.

The Department of Education is still working on its guidance for districts. Any of the funding that is not claimed will revert back to the state's general revenue account.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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