Democrats Give Cold Shoulder To Public School Choice Bill

Jan 20, 2016

Credit Bonnie Brown / Flickr.com

It’s the second time around for a bill that would allow Florida students to attend the public school of their choice. But unlike last year, when the measure was first introduced, this year’s effort is bringing sharp critiques from Democrats.

Last year, Florida lawmakers expressed intrigue in a bill that would let kids attend schools across district and county lines, as long as there is classroom space available. The bill received bipartisan support. But at a hearing before the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Wednesday, lawmakers had a different response to the bill:

“I just believe this bill is a charter school marketing bill. And we should have called it what it is instead of dancing around it," said Rep. Irv, Slosberg, a Democrat from Boca Raton.

This year's debate is all about how such an idea could be executed. 

“On the merits of this bill, it makes a lot of sense. And in my school district we toyed with the idea and the parents pushed back," said Rep. Reggie Fulwood, D-Jacksonville. He worries the bill would drive more traffic to high performing public schools, which could already be crowded and have waiting lists. And he cites himself as an example.

My daughter has been trying to get into a performing arts school for two years. So good schools get filled up," he said. "We’re talking about giving new or charter schools the ability to market on a regional basis. Because no one from Tallahassee is going to go to Jacksonville, but someone from Gadsden County is going to want to go to Leon County.”

But House Choice and Innovation Chairman Manny Diaz says a rating isn’t the only reason parents pick a school. “Students can cross county lines to go to a charter school. So to say this is a marketing apparatus for a charter school is incorrect. It will allow students to cross county lines to go to a school of their choosing. It may be an 'A'. It may not be an 'A'. They may choose to go to a 'B' school because it has a program that fits that particular child.”

And it’s not the bill that bothers Democratic Rep. Richard Starke, but what he calls the end game: a system that would let the money follow the student, instead of one that strives for parity.

“So my point is I don’t know if I like the end game, although I respect the agenda you have. It’s just that I think we’re going in the wrong direction," he said.

Despite the pushback, the plan did get approval in the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee. The Senate also approved a similar measure. But lawmakers continue to worry about how it will be funded. Right now a combination of local and state dollars support public education. The state’s share is based off projected enrollment numbers. The bill, says Miami Democratic Senator Dwight Bullard, could throw off district budgets.

“There’s an unforeseen amount of money coming into or leaving a district when we talk about a transient population  moving back and forth with a degree of fluctuation between counties," Bullard said.

Republican Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto is backing the bill in her chamber. Senators Kelli Stargel and Don Gaetz have a bill with similar language that would allow athletes to attend schools of their choice. The bills are now heading to the education appropriations committees.