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New Education Bill Contains Free Choice, 'Free Agents'

Florida’s 67 public school districts are getting ready to implement a new, wide-ranging education bill signed into law this week. Two provisions – school choice and athletic free agency – are getting most of the attention.

At 160 pages, House Bill 7029 is nearly three times as large as the original version, and was approved on the final day of the legislative session. It’s a “train bill,” meaning it contains most or all of at least a dozen other education-related measures.

Niceville Sen. Don Gaetz, who chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Committee and handled the bill in the Senate, said the chambers could not agree on how to prevent some for-profit companies from gaming the system.

“I felt, and our subcommittee felt [that] now that the charter school movement has become an industry,” said Gaetz, “That we ought to take some steps toward prohibiting what we would consider to be ‘personal enrichment.’ We were not able to get the House to agree to it.”

The school choice provision doesn’t kick in until 2017. It will allow parents to enroll their kids into any public school in Florida, unless the school is at capacity.  Escambia County already has school choice, and Superintendent Malcolm Thomas doesn’t expect much of an impact in the Panhandle.

“The geography isn’t necessarily conducive to that,” said Thomas. “Now, if you’re a parent who lives on the border of one county to another, you may see some movement. The parent would be responsible for transportation. I think it will happen in some situations, but I think it will be minor.”

Most of HB 7029 will take effect this July 1, including student-athletes becoming in effect “free agents” – able to transfer between seasons and become eligible immediately. Thomas says his concerns with that are greater than just the athletics.

“Just look at the academic harm that might come,” Thomas said. “You’re changing classes, you’re going to change teachers. You’re going to be the new student at that other school and academically, you’re always going to be re-starting yourself.”

But not all school districts are taking things in stride. Santa Rosa County – where Tim Wyrosdick is Superintendent – is bracing for what could be a lot of transfers, and little space to put them.

“There are maybe six schools that have any room,” Wyrosdick said. “And when I say ‘any room,’ I’m talking about some as low as 4-5 students, and some as high as 30.”

Another concern is that the new laws will create another layer of management, which will approve or disapprove out-of-county student transfer applications.  

“It’s going to be a slim, very slim, opportunity for parents,” said Wyrosdick. “Just because there is a bill that’s passed, it doesn’t mean there is an absolute guarantee that they will be in a different school, even a different school district.”

The one silver lining, says Wyrosdick, is that they have until the start of the 2017-18 school year to develop and implement a student choice plan.