Government

State education bill allows “open enrollment”

Provision allows students to transfer across county lines

TALLAHASSEE — A wide-ranging education bill dealing with everything from funding for high-performing universities to high-school membership in athletic associations made it through the final day of the legislative session Friday, despite the long odds that such policy “trains” often face.

But in the process, lawmakers cut a provision aimed at ensuring that taxpayer-provided construction dollars for charter schools don’t end up enriching private companies, causing angst in both the House and the Senate.

The legislation (HB 7029) passed the Senate on a 29-10 vote after a debate that included arguments about the charter-school provision and an issue dealing with whether schoolchildren have to remove their headdresses during the Pledge of Allegiance. The House then approved the bill in an 82-33 vote.

Supporters of school choice applauded the bill, which would also allow parents to transfer their children to any public school in the state that isn’t at capacity. The “open enrollment” provision, once a marquee part of education proposals during the session, largely faded into the background as the charter-school fight took center stage.

“The best educational fit for a child may be a public school less than a mile down the road,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a nonprofit organization that backs education choice. “But if a district boundary line intersects that road, the school might as well be in China. It is time to tear down invisible barriers that block students from attending schools that best meet their needs, even when there is available space.”

The bill would also add to state law performance-funding formulas for colleges and universities; allow private schools to join the Florida High School Athletic Association or other organizations on a sport-by-sport basis; and give charter schools that serve lower-income students or those with disabilities a bigger slice of the construction funding doled out by the state.

The measure would send additional funds to “emerging pre-eminent” universities — possibly the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. Those schools are approaching the pre-eminent status that provides extra money to the University of Florida and Florida State University.

Much of the debate Friday, though, centered on whether to require “arms-length” transactions for charter schools that use taxpayer money for leases or construction. Recent news reports have included allegations that some charter school management companies have used state construction dollars to improve privately owned facilities owned by entities closely related to the school companies.

The Senate had pushed the proposal to crack down on the practice, but backed off in the face of opposition from the House. Opponents of the language argue that there are some legitimate reasons for related companies to use state money.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who handled the bill in the Senate, asked lawmakers to vote for the legislation despite widespread discontent with the charter-school changes — something he said was a consequence of checks and balances in government.

“This is a solid education funding bill,” Gaetz said. “Of course we didn’t get everything we asked for; that was never James Madison’s intent.”

But some House members also objected to the change.

“There are some good charter schools; they’re engaging in innovation,” said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. “Many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except to plunder the public treasury.”