Lawmakers seek to open door to student transfers

Posted at 12:24 PM, Jan 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-21 12:30:30-05

Florida lawmakers on both ends of the Capitol approved a measure Wednesday that would allow parents to send their children to public schools regardless of location, but the Senate sent a shot across the bow to one of the House's other education priorities.

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee and the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee approved bills, nearly or entirely along party lines, setting up a process that would allow parents to transfer their children to any school in the state that is not over capacity. The legislation would also allow parents to ask for their children to be transferred out of teachers' classrooms.

Supporters said the bills would give parents more choices for sending children to traditional public schools that fit students' educational needs. They also said the bills could prevent children from getting bad educations just because of their ZIP codes.

"We don't tell people where they have to live," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, speaking on the House bill (HB 669). "We don't tell people where they have to work. We don't tell people where they have to go to college."

Democrats slammed the proposal. House opponents argued that most top-rated schools are already at capacity, and the measure amounted to a "charter school marketing bill." Republicans denied that the best schools are full and said charter schools can already draw students from other counties if they like.

Critics also said the proposals could cost some school districts money, depending on how many students choose to transfer and where they go. Supporters say that cost would be minimal.

"Even if we're talking about a $40,000 hit, that's a school psychologist, and that may be the only school psychologist that a district can afford," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, in opposing the Senate version (SB 886).

The House panel passed the bill on an 8-3 vote along party lines. The Senate vote was also 8-3, with Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, voting with Republicans.

Meanwhile Wednesday, a House education priority narrowly escaped the Senate committee. The "Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program" (SB 978) was approved on a 6-5 vote, with the measure's sponsor voting against it and two other lawmakers saying they had deep concerns about the bill.

The legislation would make permanent a plan to give annual $10,000 bonuses to teachers who are highly rated and whose SAT or ACT scores rank in the top fifth of test results. The program was temporarily put in place in this year's budget at a cost of more than $44 million.

Critics of the program object to using an SAT or ACT score to judge teachers; the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, has filed a complaint about the program with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

The plan is the brainchild of House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Several senators lacerated the legislation Wednesday. Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who voted for the measure, called it her "least favorite bill for the last couple of years" and said she couldn't support it on the Senate floor.

"I don't know what the purpose of this is," Detert said. "It rewards people who just got there. It doesn't reward a career of successful teaching. It just kind of drives me crazy. ... It's a ridiculous thing to base a reward on."

Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican and charter school administrator, voted against the bill he sponsored.

"I've seen firsthand in the schools that this legislation has done harm because it does not recognize that some teachers who are below that 80th percentile (on tests) have high-performing students, based on data," Legg said.