One of the most controversial elements of HB 7029 is a move to create more school choice even though there already are ample choices for students and parents in many school districts. The bill would allow parents from any school district in the state whose child is not suspended or expelled to enroll their child in any public or charter school that has an open seat. There are several reasonable parts of the provision, including giving preferential treatment to students who move because of their parents’ military assignment or who seek transfers because of court proceedings such as divorces. But on balance, open choice would create havoc for local districts. It also would create a bias toward students whose families have the time and resources to take them to the school of their choice miles away — even across county lines. It would not help poor children who could benefit from attending higher-performing schools with open seats or special programs but don’t have reliable transportation to get there.
There is another break for charter schools in the bill, although it’s not as generous as supporters originally sought. The bill would allow charter schools to receive capital funding within two years of being established instead of the three years required now. Reducing the time frame would shortchange taxpayers who deserve more proof that a charter school is sustainable and produces solid educational results before it gets construction money. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Nice-ville, attempted to make it more difficult for charters to get state money, particularly if they have ties to private or for-profit entities, but unfortunately lost in horse trading among lawmakers. What remains would make charters even less accountable and foolishly siphon more money from traditional public schools.