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Public School Open Enrollment, Athletics Choice Part Of Massive New Education Law

MGN Online

Florida’s students can now attend any public school in the state, as long as there is room. And high school athletes now have greater freedom to switch schools as well.  These are just two of a series of new education laws approved by Governor Rick Scott.

The idea of open enrollment in public schools goes like this. Families can send their kids to any public school, anywhere, regardless of zip code or boundaries. As long as there is room. It’s something Florida lawmakers have flirted with for the past two years. The district lines would come down.

“The more choice we have, the better off our families are throughout the state of Florida and of course we concentrate on our Hispanic families throughout the state. Being a pro-choice association, that’s the piece that really appeals to us and we are grateful to the Florida legislature for getting this done," said Julio Fuentes, President/CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.

Many of Florida’s school districts already have similar programs. But there have been concerns about flight from small, rural districts, which don’t raise a lot of money on there on, and are already cash-strapped. Districts receive state funding based on the number of students they have. There are also worries about whether some families will be able to take advantage of the program. Districts wouldn’t have to provide transportation:

“It wasn’t included in this particular bill, but there’s always next year as they say. But it is truly an issue, on transportation," said Fuentes.

Open enrollment is just a piece of a massive legislative proposal running more than 150 pages. Also included is a plan to de-fang the Florida High School Athletics Association. The FHSAA has fought off legislative efforts for years to strip away some of its oversight of high school sports, but this year, it’s main opponent, the Sunshine State Athletics Conference, scored a victory. Schools would be allowed to join other conferences and associations on a per-sport basis, without being penalized by the FHSAA.

“Our issue has been we want to get choice and fairness back in high school athletics. Our fight for the last two sessions has been to include this language—the de-coupling language—allowing schools to join FHSAA by sport without repercussions," said Stuart Weiss, President of the Sunshine State Athletics Conference. The organization has emerged in recent years as the main rival to the FHSAA.

But there’s a caveat. The FHSAA has had a rule on its books for nearly two decades blocking schools that aren’t full members from participating in it’s championships. FHSAA spokesman Kyle Niblett says the new law doesn’t preclude a school from retaining its FHSAA membership while also joining other groups. But Weiss says the rule is unfair.  

Florida lawmakers also used the same "train" bill to reach a deal when it comes to paying for public school construction. Rep. Eric Fresen, R-Miami, has accused school districts of overspending when it comes to building projects. And he initially sought to lower caps on what schools could spend.

“This isn’t a problem of one district or two…this is a statewide problem and a statewide condition," he said when he first introduced the bill.

Meanwhile, Florida’s colleges would now be ranked like their university peers—the colleges could get additional funding based on performance. And the state has now created a new designation for a few public universities. In addition to the pre-eminence designation given to Florida State University and the University of Florida, some schools could be designated as “emerging pre-eminent” qualifying them for additional state dollars as well.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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