Parental choice retention bill clears Senate Education Committee with bi-partisan support

Lisa Buie

A bill that would allow parents to hold their children back a grade to make up for COVID-slide learning losses sailed through the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

S.B. 200, filed by state Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, would let parents of children in kindergarten through eighth grade make the decision to have the child repeat a grade only during the 2021-22 school year. Current law allows district school principals to make retention decisions. The law prompted one parent to pay out of pocket for her son to a private kindergarten so that she and her husband could decide whether he was ready for first grade.

The bill follows through on an announcement that Gov. Ron DeSantis made last spring that parents would be allowed to hold their children back a grade in the fall if they had concerns about learning losses from online instruction.

DeSantis did not formalize his intentions with an executive order, and later guidance from Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recognized that while parents have a right to provide input, the final decision regarding student retention rests with school officials.

Berman filed her bill in response to parents’ concerns over the learning losses that occurred in March after the pandemic shuttered school campuses. Though all Florida district schools were required to open in August for full-time, in-person instruction, some families enrolled their children in online options that the districts could offer under an executive order from the DOE.

“We know that the COVID slide is real and troubling,” Berman told education committee members during the meeting. She cited data from Palm Beach County that showed the percentage of middle school F’s increased from 1.6 to 7.7% this past year.

Under the bill, parents with children enrolled in elementary and middle schools would have until June 30 to request from their district superintendent that their child repeat a grade next year. Superintendents would be required to approve all timely petitions and would have discretion over requests that are filed late.

Berman said she agreed to narrow the scope of the bill to exclude high schoolers ahead of Wednesday’s meeting after speaking with Corcoran, who expressed concerns about its effect on older students and athletes.

“One of the reasons why we amended the bill overall down to K-8 was so that we would not run into a lot of the issues that happened in high school with eligibility and things like parents wanting their child to attend prom,” Berman said in response to questions from Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, who asked if the bill could include provisions for retained students who were deemed ineligible to participate in activities as a result of their parents’ decision in 2021 to hold them back a year. Berman said she was open to considering it.

The bill cleared the committee by a 9-0 vote. Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, did not vote on the proposal.

The bill has two more committee hearings in the Senate. A companion bill is expected to be filed soon in the House by state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton.

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