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High school athletics reforms ready for Florida House, Senate floors


A package of bills affecting more than 285,000 high school student-athletes and the statewide governing body that oversees them are ready for consideration on the Florida House and Senate floors.

Bills in both chambers have easily cleared all necessary committees -- the Senate versions of which were approved Thursday by their last committee of reference with no questions or debate.

But it's unclear yet what kind of compromise might be reached by lawmakers to allow them to become law. Identical bills have to pass out of both chambers in order to be sent to the governor's desk, and there are differences among all of the bills.

The more basic pair of bills -- SB 1026/HB 31 by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover -- deal more narrowly with the Florida High School Athletic Association's governing authority. The measures allow member high schools to join on a per-sport basis.

Spano's version still requires the non-profit FHSAA to collect no more in fees or contest receipts than it needs to put on events; that provision was removed from Simmons' bill.

Simmons' version also would codify the process the FHSAA has to follow when investigating disputes over a student's eligibility.

The more comprehensive bills (SB 684 / HB 7039) are similar in intent but diverge in the details. Both include harsher penalties for recruiting and seek to let student-athletes keep their athletic eligibility when transferring schools during the same school year.

The FHSAA has specifically opposed the House version -- sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah -- over fears that it could “open the door to recruiting and free agency” of student-athletes.

If a student is home-schooled or their school doesn’t offer a particular sport, Diaz’s proposal would let that student choose any school in their district that offered that sport. The FHSAA argued in January that students should be limited to their home-zoned area, not given whatever option they want.

Diaz's bill has been on the chamber's second-reading calendar since early January and hasn't been taken up yet on the floor.

The Senate version, which unanimously passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, is more comprehensive. The bill -- sponsored by Republican Sens. Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, and Don Gaetz, of Niceville -- includes the per-sport provision for FHSAA member schools, the immediate eligibility for student-athlete transfers and the recruiting penalties.

But more broadly, it also includes an open-enrollment provision, allowing any child to attend any school in the state that has space available.

House members passed a bill Thursday that allows the same policy. Like that House bill, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, has a related proposal that includes open enrollment but doesn't address high school athletics. It still needs to be heard by the Senate budget committee.