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The School District Lines Come Down: Parents, Realtors Consider Public School Choice

A plan that would allow students to attend any public school in any county is running into head winds in the House. The proposal cleared its most recent committee in a partisan vote, and even its supporters admit it’s got flaws. Still, it’s generating a lot of interest outside the legislature.

During the week day Jacksonville mom Toni Richardson drives her daughter Taylor across town to a different school. She’s averaging nearly 50 miles a day for the trip—and Richardson works downtown, so sometimes the drive is even longer.

“From Chet's Creek to the House, from Chet's Creek to the House is 46 [miles]. But if you count Chet's from home to Chet's, from Chet's to work, from work to Chet's and from Chet's back to home—you’re talking about 70-something miles a day, she says. "If Chet's Creek had a sixth grade, I’d gladly do it for another year.”

Richardson’s daughter Taylor has attended Jacksonville’s Chet’s Creek Elementary School since kindergarten. She’s in the fifth grade now. Two years ago Richardson lost her job and had to move across town. But she chose to commute to the school because she didn’t like the new school zone, nor the public and charter schools in the area. But getting the waiver to keep her daughter at a different school was another challenge.

“You had to go back-and-forth between the various floors of the Duval school system. Back to the school you were trying to get the child in, and making sure the right hand knew what the left was doing and make sure everyone was on the same page," Richardson says.

Now her daughter Taylor will soon be moving on to middle school—and Richardson is already at work trying to keep her daughter in a strong program. She’s eyeing two Jacksonville middle schools which have specialized magnet programs, “however, it’s a lottery and if she doesn’t get in to one of those schools, my option would be again special assignment."

And if that doesn’t work, she'll be “trying to move to a district that will provide the education I feel she needs and deserves.”

A Tale of Two Houses

Tallahassee Realtor Christie Orros knows the city. And during a recent ride along she points out two houses. The first is located next to the city’s main park—it’s across the street from a relatively decent high school—and it’s about 10 minutes from the center of state government. The yards are immaculate and large.  It even backs up to a lake. Orros sold this house in December:

“It sold for $283,000 after being on the market or a month and a half.”  

After a 40 minute drive, we’re across town, near the Georgia-Florida line. It’s a trek. This is Ox Bottom. An affluent neighborhood growing in popularity where homes range from $300,000, to above $1 million.

Here is the  exact same house, with a very tiny backyard. It’s also priced at $360,000.

"Why, is this one, not our months later, $70,000  more than the same floor plan than the clearly superior yard and location in terms of park vicinity? " Orros asks. The difference? School zone.

Public School Choice Bill Moving

“Schools are one of the first thing people ask when moving to town. They’ve done their research. Then they ask their then they ask their agents when we’re looking—what are the school zones for this neighborhood?” 

Tallahassee property appraiser Greg Lane says people in his industry are closely watching a bill pushed by Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls. His proposal would open of the state’s public schools to any student—not just those who live within a district. The only caveat is that the policy would apply as long as a school isn’t full. Defining capacity is something that concerns districts, which have to abide by class size limits. It would also let students cross county lines—an issue that worries other lawmakers because it could hurt small, rural areas.  Republican Rep. Marlene O’Toole issued this warning:

“There’s a lot of work to be done to move this forward, but I think I had your commitment to work with me on that before the next stop?  Or it will stop.”

Despite the blow-back the proposal continues moving forward in the House. The Senate version of the bill is set for a second hearing later in the week. Lane sees big opportunities for cities, counties and local communities.

“It could change the way people look at homes," he says. "So, homes may be off their short list because it doesn’t have one-to-two  schools they want…maybe it has two of the schools but not the third?"

Because if students can move anywhere, as long as there’s room, would it still matter where a family lives?