Romano: Once again, state lawmakers meddle in local control of schools

Published April 25, 2015

They are so gosh darned good to us, I don't know how we stand it.

From the moment they arrive in Tallahassee, our state legislators insist on sending back unnecessary gifts. Fancy-sounding laws we neither asked for, nor need.

It's too much. Really. Please, stop.

Take this new schools bill (HB 1145) the House passed on Friday. It is crammed full of unrelated educational items that no one seemed to be clamoring for.

The centerpiece is a school choice concept dubbed a parent empowerment act by our very own freshman lawmaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

Essentially it means parents can send their children to any public school in the state that has not exceeded 90 percent of its capacity. This means, theoretically, a student zoned for Northeast High in St. Petersburg could attend Tampa's Plant High, if there were room.

Sounds great, right? Very empowering. Very freedom-ish.

Unfortunately, the law is governed by details and not slogans. And some of the details could create unintended consequences down the line.

For instance, imagine an elementary school that is at 88 percent capacity and gets an influx of students from distant neighborhoods and adjacent counties. Now it's at 95 percent. Still not a problem, right?

But what happens if the next year's kindergarten class is particularly large? Or a bunch of families moved into the area the following year? Or a nearby charter school closed? What happens if applications exceed capacity in subsequent years?

That could mean people who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a house on a particular block might not be able to get into their neighborhood school because kids from another city have already claimed seats. And those out-of-area students will be able to retain those seats for six years until leaving for middle school.

Sound unlikely? Well, at the start of the 2012-13 school year, nine elementary schools in Pinellas County saw their enrollment jump by 10 percent or more. In other words, it's not unheard of to have a fluctuating number of students from year to year.

There might also be a funding problem. While the state's share of funding would follow a student from one district to another, counties would not be obligated to share their money. So residents in one county might agree to raise taxes to purchase new computers for their schools, and students from another county could benefit.

Maybe that wouldn't be a problem for similar-sized areas that see students go back and forth across county lines, but it could be a factor if too many students flee a rural county.

Even worse? All of this seems totally unnecessary.

Nearly 80 percent of the state's districts already have school choice programs. This would include magnets. Fundamentals. Charters.

Some districts, like Pinellas and Pasco, work together and share funds if a student is granted a waiver to go from one county to the other.

Yet, by adding a state law, superintendents will have their hands tied and will no longer be able to monitor student migration.

"They are fostering this climate of state-controlled and state-mandated issues,'' said Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego. "You have elected leaders on school boards, you have superintendents, you have great principals and teachers, and the state is removing all of these local people from the mix. It's frustrating.

"Wouldn't you think the people closest to the situation would know the best way to handle things from county to county? Isn't it best to be accountable locally?''

The true frustration is the hypocrisy.

Lawmaker after lawmaker has praised this bill because it supposedly empowers parents. They practically grow misty-eyed when they say parents know what's best for their kids.

Yet these same lawmakers refuse to listen to a tsunami of parental protests when it comes to high-stakes testing.

Pardon me for saying, but it makes their motives seem suspect. It makes the parental choice crusade seem like just another way of usurping authority from local school districts and moving Florida toward a privatized system of education.

"They use semantics to push their agenda. They talk about freedom and empowerment to give us something we're not even asking for,'' said Kathleen Oropeza, a founder of the nonpartisan advocacy group

"And it's really just another little nail in the coffin, another way of undermining local control. This has the potential of turning things upside down.''

Predictably, the bill passed the House easily by an 80-36 vote. That means, as usual, we must depend on the Senate to be the voice of reason.

This bill was not born of need. Or acclimation. It is a bill that fits a certain political viewpoint. Lawmakers are offering it not because we asked for it, but because they want it.

It's a gift we can do without.