by: Beth Kassab|Orlando Sentinel|April 20, 2016
School choice is already well established in Florida.
Students who attend failing or very low performing schools can switch to a better school and even receive a stipend to help out with transportation expenses. Those “Opportunity Scholarships” have been around since 1999.
Students with disabilities can transfer to public schools outside their zones or select a private school. Last year 30,000 students with special needs used a McKay Scholarship to leave their public school.
Many school districts offer magnet programs in health care or performing arts and other special curriculum that allow students to attend outside their zone when a parent decides it’s the best choice.
So what gives with the sweeping education bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week that promises school choice?
It’s not about choice at all.
It’s about undermining the authority of local school districts.
And this is part of a disturbing trend.
School boards have watched lawmakers send down orders from Tallahassee in recent years on everything from how school dollars can be spent to new testing mandates.
Now the Legislature and Scott want school districts to drop their borders and accept students from other counties, too.
Never mind that school districts function best when they are elected by and accountable to the people they serve.
Never mind that voters in some counties, including Orange and Seminole, have decided to tax themselves to improve their schools — money that would get stretched farther with an influx of out-of-county students who wouldn’t bring any new local money with them.
And never mind that this new law has the potential to upend high school athletics by destroying the system of neighborhood schools and making every child a free agent available to play anywhere.
All courtesy of your state legislature.
These are the same people who decided to give teachers bonuses based on, in some cases, decades-old test scores from when the teacher was in high school.
Logic, or the lack of it, is no obstacle in the 850.
So now school districts, which already have the complicated task of educating students, are saddled with figuring out how to execute this latest bright idea.
“Our biggest concern is we don’t want to overcrowd a school for students who are actually zoned for that school,” said Scott Howat, senior executive director for legislative and governmental relations at Orange schools. “Those people who live in the community, they deserve a seat.”
The law allows districts to turn down out-of-area students when a school is at capacity. But there are different ways to figure out capacity and also to project how many students are expected in a school zone based on how many homes and apartments are in the pipeline to be built.
School districts can’t do their jobs if they can’t plan for the future.
Representatives from local districts are planning to get together in May and begin to try to answer some of those questions.
Here’s a question for lawmakers: Whatever happened to supporting our neighborhood schools?
No doubt, school choice is an important tool for parents and local school boards.
Magnet programs or transfers in the case of a poorly-performing school help districts cater to students in a more personal way.
But requiring districts to accept outside students has the potential to create a free-for-all.
And it’s just the latest example of state legislatures trying to override the power of local governments.
Here in Florida we saw it with gun laws in 2011. Lawmakers said any cities or counties that enforce their own form of gun control (think local ordinances about backyard gun ranges or “no weapon” signs at parks) would be subject to fines.
Recently in North Carolina, the Legislature there called a special session to undo protections for gay or transgender people passed by the city of Charlotte.
The subject of out-of-county school transfers may not generate the same excitement from cable TV pundits as a law against people who would like to use a public restroom based on their gender identity. Or usurping the rights of cities to say who can pack heat and where.
But it’s every bit an assault by the state on local governments to decide what’s best for their own communities.
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