A sweeping proposal to bring "school choice" to Florida high school athletics and other extracurricular activities passed its first Senate committee Thursday, despite concerns that it could encourage rampant recruiting of student-athletes.
Senate Bill 684 -- approved unanimously by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- builds on lawmakers' efforts in recent years to grant more flexibility for student-athletes so they can participate in programs immediately when they transfer schools.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland -- who's spearheading the legislation with Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz -- said student-athletes should have the same right as any other student who participates in extracurricular activities to transfer to whatever school of their choice and be immediately eligible to participate in school activities.
The current limitation requires transfer students to wait until the next sports season before participating in sports. It stems from a rule by the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state-designated governing body for high school athletics.
Although the FHSAA supports Stargel and Gaetz's legislation, some athletics officials in Florida disagree with lawmakers about allowing immediate eligibility, especially without geographic limitations. They worry the proposal will legitimize abuses that are already occurring, such as students shopping for top programs or being recruited.
To "dispel" those fears, the legislation includes harsh penalties for coaches and school officials who recruit student-athletes. It calls for a $5,000 fine for the first offense, the fine and a one-year's suspension from coaching for the second offense, and the fine and the loss of their teaching license for the third offense.
"To provide more of a choice in athletics, we wanted to make sure that recruiting carried a very heavy penalty," Gaetz said.
Ron Book, a lobbyist for the FHSAA, acknowledged a crackdown on recruiting would be a victory for the FHSAA.
"I think the world of high school athletics understands that you have, with this bill, resolved the message that we’re not going to tolerate recruiting," Book said. "There are some other things that can be done to penalize parental interfering but the bill has come a long way."
The legislation deals with more than just extracurricular participation. It also significantly relaxes school enrollment restrictions statewide. It would allow any student to attend any school they choose -- wherever it is -- so long as the school has room for the student and their parents can provide the child's transportation.
Stargel said the provision was something senators tried to achieve last year through separate legislation, and she feels it goes hand-in-hand with the law changes for high school athletics that she's been advocating for.
"We found we'd allow children to have choice in school, but then they can't play sports, so we had to do them simultaneously," she said.
SB 684 next goes to the education budget committee.
The House is considering similarly sweeping legislation related to high school athletics, although that proposal -- HB 7039, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah -- differs in what changes its proposing.
Stargel and Gaetz's bill was amended to include a "de-coupling" provision that also gained approval Thursday through SB 1026, which cleared the Senate Pre-K-12 committee, and HB 31, which is on its way to the House floor. Those proposals would allow schools to join the FHSAA on a per-sport basis and restrict the FHSAA's income from fees and contest receipts to only what it needs to cover its costs. Stargel and Gaetz's bill would allow the per-sport membership only for private schools.
Small, private schools -- led most vocally by the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, whose members are 38 private schools and one charter school -- complain that it is burdensome to join the FHSAA, because by joining for one sport, they're subject to FHSAA rules for all other sports as well.
FHSAA officials object to "de-coupling," telling senators that the plan could hurt the organization's revenues. The organization uses post-season games for revenue-generating sports -- such as basketball, baseball and football -- to cover the costs of all 32 sports it oversees.