Sweeping school choice bill passes Senate panel

(Ferre' Dollar/CNN)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A sweeping education bill that would allow parents to send their children to schools in other counties and demand their children get new teachers in some situations was approved on a party-line vote Wednesday by a key Senate panel.

 The 62-page measure (SB 1552) would, among other provisions, give parents the right to have their children attend any school in the state that hasn't reached capacity. And if a student is being taught by a teacher that is out of his or her field, a parent could demand that the student be moved to another classroom. The bill also would make a slew of changes to charter school laws.

 Over the objections of Democrats, the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee voted 7-4 to approve the bill. Supporters say the legislation would help parents whose children might otherwise be trapped in classrooms or schools that don't work for them.

 "I think school choice in traditional public schools is very important, because no child should be limited to the school that they can attend simply based on their ZIP code," said Jason Fischer, a Duval County School Board member. "ZIP codes should not be barriers to a better life."

 But critics questioned the changes. Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the part of the bill allowing students to transfer to schools in other districts might not work out the same for all families.

 The parents would have to pay transportation costs. Montford, a former superintendent, also pointed to school districts' statements that the state doesn't always cover the full cost of student transportation to begin with.

 "If we're really going to do that, then this state needs to step up, fully fund transportation, and provide true options for all parents, not just parents who have means," Montford said after the meeting.

 Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the bill, downplayed how many parents were likely to take advantage of the provision.

 "I don't anticipate there's a mass move by parents to send their children or take their children to schools two counties away, or three counties away," she said.

 Benacquisto also pushed back against the idea that parents would be able to choose their children's teachers, pointing out that the bill simply allows parents to request, or in some cases demand, that a student be moved out of a certain classroom. The school district could then assign the child to another class.

 "This does not allow a parent to cherry-pick a teacher in any way, shape or form," she said.

 But Montford, who said he supported school choice as a general concept, also said the state has to allow superintendents and principals to run their schools at some point.

 "When I was principal or school superintendent, I would lean over backwards to help parents get their choice," he said while discussing the teacher provision. "But, quite frankly, there are some times there are good reasons not to give a parent that choice."

 The legislation still has two more committee stops before it could go to the full Senate.