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Hurdles to school choice remain despite Florida’s open enrollment law

Florida’s new open enrollment policies are still leaving students behind.

Florida has one of the most robust school choice programs nationwide, with 45 percent of pre-K-12 students in the state having exercised some type of choice option in the 2015-16 school year.

A new law seems poised to amplify that even more. HB 7029, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, will be effective for the 2017-18 school year. Under HB 7029, public schools are required to allow students to transfer in from anywhere else in the state, as long as they have the capacity to take them.

Still, parents in counties across the state are finding out that getting children into a school that suits them is more complicated than one would expect of an open enrollment policy.

In Seminole County, 1,000 elementary school students are being rezoned in August due to growing enrollment.

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Don Fox, a parent of two children attending Keeth Elementary in Winter Springs, is facing the prospect that his children will now be shuffled a far distance across town. He says parents who want to use the new statewide open enrollment policies to keep their children in their current schools are being denied that option.

Fox and other parents in Seminole County have been told that district schools are at capacity next year and that no intra-district transfers will be allowed, except for diversity reasons. Next year the capacity at Keeth could shrink by 100 spots, leaving little availability to parents who want to stay put.

Fox said he thinks district leaders are taking advantage of the discretion HB 7029 affords individual school districts.

“They’re using this opportunity to help try to balance the school grades, and trying to move students from schools with higher grades (and) higher participation rates to these other schools,” Fox said.

Like many parents, the Foxes bought their home so their children could attend a specific school — originally Lawton Elementary. But they found themselves rezoned to nearby Keeth Elementary, which Fox said made sense.

Now the school zone boundaries have been redrawn yet again, and Fox’s two sons are being sent to Layer Elementary across town. His two boys will even pass Keeth Elementary on their way to Layer. Fox simply wants to keep his kids at Keeth where they have developed a sense of community.

“What upsets me so much is, that earlier this year when we heard ‘school choice,’ I thought that was a great thing,” Fox told Watchdog. “I had no idea that I would be needing that, and that I would be denied that.”

Up to the districts

Michael Lawrence, communications officer for Seminole County Public Schools, told Watchdog that Seminole County is still in the process of figuring out how it will adapt to the new open enrollment policies. Administrators are currently working on their definitions of capacity for the schools in the district.

According to the Florida Department of Education, individual districts formulate policies for how they enact open enrollment and determine capacity caps.

Curtis Jenkins, a consultant with the FLDOE, said that “schools have an obligation under this law to implement the law in the school district and make decisions about which schools are at capacity.”

“Rezoning and schools changing and getting ready for this open enrollment is not an easy task,” Jenkins said.

Other school districts besides Seminole County are finding the adaptation to open enrollment tricky. In the Tampa Bay area, officials from the Hillsborough and Pinellas districts have experience accommodating transfers across county lines. Now, however, they will be slower to give away seats to out-of-district students. High population growth and the need to reconsider school capacities complicate the issue further.

“Districts that have a little bit higher growth are worried about when they give a seat away to a non-zoned student and that student is now going to remain there,” Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent for Pinellas, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They know there are going to be new homes and they’re getting new kids. So I think they’re being a little more conservative.”

In St. Johns County, Superintendent Joseph Joyner told the Florida Times-Union that the open enrollment policies would make it harder for the district to plan for its own students, especially since St. Johns is a high-performing school district and likely to be attractive to out-of-district students.

“Any seat we give up is ultimately going to be hurtful,” Joyner said. “We will build schools purposely because we know the houses are coming in that zone. Part of this bill makes it difficult to plan.”

Hold the pickles

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume the worst about how administrators are going to go about doing their work, because I am confident that there are many who will be very accommodating for parents and students who want some form of public school choice, and I’ve seen evidence of that in school districts,” Bill Mattox, director of the Center for Education Options at the James Madison Institute, told Watchdog.

Mattox added that, best intentions aside, normal economic factors invariably come into play, meaning that there are times when parents and students in one situation get better treatment than those in another. Moreover, there is a “gravitational pull towards status quo” that makes school administrators slow to adapt.

Mattox compared it to ordering at a restaurant. It’s a lot easier for a school system — or a restaurant — to establish uniform, systematic practices. But, he argues, education is first and foremost about children, not schools.

“If you’re running an institution, a restaurant, you’d rather have every single person come in and say, ‘I’ll just have the burger the way you prepared it’ instead of saying, ‘Hold the cheese on this one and I’ll take the pickle on this one.’”

The tricky part for the school system is that a lot of kids don’t like pickles.

“When it comes to education, kids ought to come first instead of asking the student to accommodate to the institution,” Mattox said.

Written By

Erin Clark is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. A graduate of the University of Richmond, Clark competed on the professional tennis circuit for several years before returning to writing. Her work has been republished on Townhall and other news sources. She can be reached at eclark@watchdog.org.

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