What’s on the Florida Legislature’s school choice agenda this year

Travis Pillow

Florida CapitolStandardized testing issues are expected to consume much of lawmakers’ focus once the Florida Legislature convenes its annual 60-day session today.

But there’s room on the agenda for school choice bills, even if they’re not expected to trigger the high-profile legislative drama we’ve seen in recent years.

Florida’s past two legislative sessions have produced measures allowing students to customize their education beyond their choice of school (course access and Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts), spurring new of public school options (career academies and collegiate high schools) and helping existing choice programs grow (increased eligibility for tax credit scholarships, standardized charter school contracts).

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.

This year, many of the proposals call for making adjustments: Helping districts stop unqualified charter school operators, broadening eligibility for the scholarship accounts, eliminating obstacles for students signing up for virtual courses.

There are a few other, provocative ideas worth keeping an eye on. Lawmakers in both chambers are looking to eliminate geographic barriers that might restrict parents’ access to desirable schools, allowing them to enroll in any public school that has space.

Sen. John Legg, the Trinity Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the fact that the concept appears in two separate pieces of legislation — one sponsored by him, and one by two fellow Republicans — is a sign it’s likely to get attention this year.

His Senate district lies along the boundary between Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, north of Tampa. Parents who commute every day from the bedroom communities of Pasco might want to enroll their children in a Hillsborough County school, and parents in other Tampa Bay-area counties might want access to some of the Pasco school district’s attractive new offerings.

Public schools are becoming increasingly specialized, Legg said, and “arbitrary political boundaries” should not keep children out of schools that might meet their needs.

Here are the key school choice bills to watch over the next two months.

Student choice. The House and Senate appear to be coalescing around a proposal by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, to create a state charter school institute, housed at Florida State University. That’s become part of a package that would also give school districts more authority to vet the track records of charter school applicants, make it easier for high-performing charters to expand in high-needs areas, and eliminate eligibility restrictions for virtual education. The Senate version also includes Legg’s proposal creating universal public school choice. SB 1448/proposed House bill

Parental rights. Separate legislation also includes a version of the universal school choice proposal, along with other provisions aimed at giving parents and students more rights in dealing with their schools. For example, it would require school districts to allow parents to request to have their children transferred to other teachers. HB 1145/SB 1552

Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. The Senate is already advancing legislation aimed at expanding eligibility for students with autism and making other administrative changes to Florida’s new parental choice program for special needs students. Another issue to watch: The level of funding lawmakers set aside for scholarship accounts in the upcoming state budget. SB 602

Digital learning. The next iteration of last year’s digital learning legislation is aimed, in part, at increasing charter schools’ participation. Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have also pledged to boost funding for “digital classrooms.” SB 1264

High school sports. A proposal by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is aimed at ensuring eligibility for school sports and extracurricular activities cannot become a barrier to school choice. House lawmakers are having discussions in a similar vein. SB 1480

High-performing charter schools. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has introduced a measure that would allow well-regarded, out-of-state charter networks to receive “high-performing” status in Florida, potentially aiding efforts to recruit the likes of KIPP and YES Prep to more cities. SB 692

Charter districts. Diaz and Sen. Rene Garcia, a fellow Hialeah Republican, have proposed a pilot program that would allow school districts to apply for some of the flexibility enjoyed by charters, in exchange for increased academic accountability. HB 357/SB 952

Charter school regulation. As in previous years, Democratic legislators have proposed a suite of bills that would place new requirements on charter schools, like making them prove they’re offering something the local district isn’t or post a surety bond before they can open. A new proposal would require them to show there’s a “need” for their services. Some of these bills aim to address real concerns, like curbing unqualified charter schools that suddenly shut down months after they open. Others are aimed at restricting their growth. HB 61SB 254; SB 720; SB 906SB 1336.

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