As Florida communities prepare to take in Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, five lawmakers are asking the state’s top education official to grant flexibility to public schools so they can accommodate additional students in the coming months.
In a letter to state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on Monday, the lawmakers formally asked the state to ensure schools receive additional funding that will be crucial to cover the uptick in student enrollment that wasn’t anticipated when the Legislature approved this year’s school spending in June.
They also want Stewart to give schools a break when it comes to certain required enrollment paperwork and constitutionally mandated caps on class sizes.
So many Puerto Rican families have literally lost everything, and we must stand ready to do everything possible to help their children transition as seamlessly as possible to a new school and learning environment.
Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs
“Not only must Florida be prepared for the influx of students, but we must allow schools to continue to implement their plan for a successful year,” the letter stated. “We believe these requests will help make the transitions of students from Puerto Rico manageable for our school districts and help ease displaced students back to their education.”
The letter was signed by five Republican House members: Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, David Santiago of Deltona, Rene Plasencia of Orlando and Mike La Rosa of St. Cloud.
Diaz is the House’s Pre-K-12 education budget chairman. The four other lawmakers are either of Puerto Rican descent themselves or represent districts that have high Puerto Rican populations.
“It is extremely important for Florida to be prepared for a large number of evacuees from Puerto Rico,” Cortes said in a statement. “So many Puerto Rican families have literally lost everything, and we must stand ready to do everything possible to help their children transition as seamlessly as possible to a new school and learning environment.”
Among the items Puerto Ricans coming to Florida might not have ready access to: Their child’s transcripts, immunization records or birth certificates.
The lawmakers are asking Stewart to “review the process” to address the students’ lack of academic records and to waive immunization and birth certificate requirements for enrollment in early learning or Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten programs.
The group also called on Stewart to “implement an extended or alternative process” to ensure new students from Puerto Rico can be counted in the state Department of Education’s upcoming fall survey of student enrollment.
The tally is key in determining how much money school districts are allotted by the state through a formula that’s set by the Legislature.
Because teachers might also be among the displaced, the letter asked the DOE to “review the process for expedited temporary certification for teachers coming from Puerto Rico.”
But that shouldn’t be an issue. DOE spokeswoman Meghan Collins told the Herald/Times: “We have full reciprocity with Puerto Rico as we do with all U.S. states and territories. It’s in statute.”
The DOE hasn’t yet offered much detail on its plans to accommodate additional students.
“Florida’s school districts have processes in place to enroll students displaced by natural disasters. The department has been in regular contact with district superintendents to provide assistance as they have begun enrolling Puerto Rican students who were impacted by Hurricane Maria,” DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in a statement to the Herald/Times. “Commissioner Stewart will issue a summary of guidance to all districts and continue to work with school districts on additional issues as they arise.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s office made similar remarks in a statement earlier Monday: “Florida school districts have processes in place to enroll K-12 students displaced by natural disasters, and all districts are prepared to enroll Puerto Rican evacuees. Families displaced by Hurricane Maria have begun arriving in Florida, and a number have already enrolled their students.”
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed.