School choice bills find support in House

House Republicans made good on their promise to expand school choice Thursday, passing two choice-in-education bills out of the lower chamber.

The first would allow home- and virtual-school students to participate in sports and extra-curricular activities at the traditional public school of their choice.

The second would require single-gender public schools to have open enrollment.

House Speaker Will Weatherford called Thursday’s votes “the beginning of our school choice agenda.”

“There are still more bills to come,” the Wesley Chapel Republican said.

The caucus is hoping for larger victories on the school-choice front: namely, expanding the school voucher program, creating of savings accounts for special-needs children, and fostering charter school growth.

But even if they succeed, the Senate may stand in the way.

The upper chamber has pursued a far less aggressive school choice agenda this year.

On Monday, the Senate Education Committee gutted the proposal aimed at creating a more favorable environment for new charter schools. Days earlier, Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew his bill to expand the school voucher program.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said the upper chamber is not opposed to school choice. But he and other senators want to take a “rational approach to education policy,” he said.

The charter school proposal, for instance, was “an overreach,” he said.

“It is not something that all charter schools want,” Legg said of a provision requiring school districts and charter schools to use a standardized contract.

Both of the school-choice bills that passed in the House on Thursday were sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah.

One (HB 533) drew strong opposition from Democrats.

Under current law, students enrolled in virtual and home-school programs can play sports at their neighborhood public schools.

The new language would allow those students to play sports at any school in the district. It would also apply to extra-curricular activities like marching band and theater.

What’s more, the option would be extended to students at charter schools and district-operated magnet and alternative schools — but only if their school did not offer the activity.

Some Democrats said the measure would lead to free agency and recruiting in high-school athletics.

“This will allow for abuse and misuse of the system,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, predicting that students would skirt the eligibility rules.

Other Democrats raised concerns about funding.

“The bill is unfair to public schools because it unfairly places the burden of offering extra-curricular activities on the public schools,” said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

Slosberg said the bill was also unfair to public-school students, who are not permitted to “shop around” for sports programs and extra-curricular activities.

But Republican Rep. Neil Combee had a four-word retort: “Let the kids play.”

Republican Reps. Eddy Gonzalez, Cary Pigman, David Santiago and Ross Spano repeated the maxim.

The bill passed by a 82-34 vote.

The single-gender pilot program (HB 313) passed 110-4.

Single-gender schools are already permitted under Florida law. The bill would require those schools to be open to all students within the district. It would also require school administrators and teachers to undergo special training.