1. Florida Politics

Bill would give more choices to Florida students

Published Mar. 23, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Kameela Russell's daughter acted out at her neighborhood school, Madie Ives Elementary in northeast Miami-Dade.

But she excelled after transferring to the top-ranked Lakeside Elementary in Broward County.

Most parents would not have been able to move their child to a public school in another county. Russell could because she was a teacher in Broward.

That option may soon become available to more Florida families.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering proposals that would let children enroll in any school in the state that has available seats. The bills would also make it easier for some parents to transfer their children into different teacher's classrooms.

The House version (HB 1145) will have its first hearing before the K-12 Education Subcommittee on Tuesday.

Democrats are already voicing concerns about opening up enrollment. But the concept has found support among parents like Russell, who say parents and students should have more choices.

"I like the idea of children being able to attend whichever school fits them best," Russell said.

Florida lawmakers have spent the past two decades working to give students and parents more options in education. This year should be no different. Both House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, consider expanding school choice a top priority. And supporters like the Foundation for Florida's Future, the education think tank started by likely GOP presidential candidate and former Gov. Jeb Bush, continue to drive education policy in Florida.

The student choice bills in the House and Senate are different.

The 62-page Senate version (SB 1552) would also create the Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation to help new charter school applicants, and a pilot program that would give principals more autonomy to operate their schools. Those two measures are traveling through the House as separate bills: HB 7037 and HB 357, respectively.

The Senate version also provides additional flexibility to charter schools by making schools eligible for longer contracts.

"It's (about) accountability, transparency and providing the maximum opportunity for choice for our parents and children," said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who is sponsoring the bill.

The most controversial part of the proposal, however, has been the provision allowing children to attend any school in the state that has not reached capacity.

During a hearing last week, Benacquisto said she didn't foresee a great number of parents transferring their children.

"This is more designed for the parent who works in one county, different from the county where they live, and they want to have their children close to them," she said.

But the idea troubled Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, because parents would have to pay for the transportation.

"It concerns me that if a parent doesn't have transportation, then they don't have access to (schools in different counties)," Montford said.

Montford, who heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, also took issue with giving parents more freedom to select their child's teacher.

If the Senate bill were to become law, school districts would have to establish a policy for handling requests by parents to transfer their children to different classrooms. Districts would have two weeks to grant or deny the requests.

"I'd like to be able to pick the teachers for all five of my grandchildren," Montford said. "But at some point, we've got to trust the administrators in the school."

Benacquisto was quick to point out that in the Senate version, school districts would only be required to grant transfers if the teacher was not teaching in the subject of his or her expertise.

"This does not allow a parent to cherry-pick a teacher in any way, shape or form," Benacquisto said.

The House version, which does not mandate any type of student transfers, goes further, saying it "does not give a parent the right to choose a specific classroom teacher."

Still, all four Democrats on the Senate Education Committee voted against the proposal last week. The seven Republicans on the panel voted for it.

The House version is also likely to meet resistance from Democrats on Tuesday. Some parent activists like Laura Zorc, however, hope all lawmakers will give the idea serious consideration.

"I am in full support of any bill that gives parents the right to have a say in their child's education," Zorc said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at Follow @kmcgrory.