A bill that would allow open enrollment in Florida public schools is headed to the House floor, after the House Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon made two significant changes.
HB 669 -- from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor -- would allow parents to request classroom transfers for their kids or put them in any school in the state that has capacity.
After stalling last year, the measure moved swiftly through three committees since passing its first panel three weeks ago, and it's one of several bills being debated in both the House and Senate this session that call for open enrollment. The concept is supported by "school choice" advocates and the charter school industry -- which gave Florida lawmakers' campaign and political committees at least $182,500 between July and early January, before the 2016 session started.
After more than an hour of debate Tuesday, Sprowls' bill passed the House Education Committee on a 13-5 vote, with Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda joining Republicans in support.
Republicans said the bill promotes choice and the freedom for all students to go to a quality school that suits their needs. But Democrats said key questions still remain unanswered, such as how it would affect school funding across district lines and whether it would hurt neighborhood schools or have other unintended consequences.
The most controversial change adopted by the committee had critics worrying that developers in wealthy areas would be able to designate which students could attend schools built in blossoming communities. The amendment by Sprowls would give primary enrollment preference based on land donations "or funding agreements" in place with school districts before July 2016.
"We’re cherry-picking and saying only in those wealthy communities, where a developer is going to give the land, are we protecting that right to neighborhood schools," Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said.
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, called it "bad public policy" because the proposal was so broad, and he was among those who said it would enable developers to "buy a seat" in preferred schools.
Supporters on the education committee said such fears were "unfounded" because the bill would only affect existing agreements in place by this summer, not future ones.
"A lot of what is being discussed here is current practice and it can happen today," Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said. "This is simply just memorializing an existing development and mitigation tool that exists."
Sprowls' amendment was added on a voice vote, which sounded close.
Meanwhile, lawmakers also added an unrelated provision that would require middle- and high school teachers to provide a class syllabus to parents and highlight "any material containing mature or adult content" that they intend to teach.
Teachers would have sole discretion to decide what is potentially controversial material, and parents would be given the opportunity to object, under the provision brought forth by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.
Adkins and Reps. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, and Michael Bileca, R-Miami, spoke vaguely of "pornographic" and "sexually explicit" material that students have been suggested or required to read in some Florida public schools.
"The content that some of our kids are exposed to under the responsibility of the school district … would shock a lot of members on this committee," Bileca said. He told the Herald/Times after the meeting that the questionable material he'd seen was brought to him by concerned Collier County parents.
Adkins' amendment was also added on a voice vote, which sounded unanimous.
Also Tuesday, the Education Committee sent three other high-profile bills to the House floor for consideration. They would:
-- propose to voters a constitutional amendment creating a statewide authorizer that could authorize, operate and control Florida's 650 charter schools;
-- require elementary schools to offer daily recess;
-- and target the Florida School Boards Association and eliminate its ability to sue the state using taxpayer dollars.
Both the charter school authorizer measure and the FSBA bill are moving through Senate committees also. The recess bill hasn't been heard at all in the Senate.
Photo credit: Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, presents HB 669 to the House Education Committee on Feb. 9, 2016. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau