Florida House could expand access to extra-curricular activities for students in choice programs

The full Florida House is set to vote on a bill that would give private-school, virtual-school and charter-school students more access to extra-curricular activities at nearby public schools.

The bipartisan legislation has passed unanimously through three committees, and it seemed to be cruising toward a final vote without controversy. That changed on Wednesday, as the bill’s supporters faced a series of tough questions from Democrats when it was introduced on the House floor.

HB 533 would broaden Florida’s so-called “Tebow Law” that allows students in home education and other choice programs to compete on sports teams at nearby public schools. It would clarify that the rule also applies to other extracurricular activities, like drama or debate clubs.

It would also allow students – including those who attend traditional public schools – to participate in those activities at other schools in their district if their zoned school does not offer them.

Bill sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said the bill would ensure students have access to extracurricular activities as growing numbers of them choose options beyond their zoned schools.

“Students and parents have a lot of choices to make, and those schools are not bound by attendance zones, so why are we being hypocritical, and trying to keep these students out, from participating in athletics and activities?” he asked his colleagues, responding to a litany of questions from Democrats on the House floor.

“This concept bothers me a great deal,” said Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood. Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, asked if the bill would allow schools to “quote-unquote recruit” students to build powerhouse programs in sports or other competitions.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, warned about a potential “chaos factor.”

“Now we’re looking at so many additional students coming into the system, being able to go virtually wherever they want,” he said.

Another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, tried to serve Diaz a “softball” question about how participation in extracurricular activities can lead to better academic results. Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, also tried to help out, reminding her colleagues that they dealt with similar legislation last year, which also received bipartisan support.

Diaz said there seemed to be “confusion” on the part of some of the bill’s critics. He said the bill would not affect the Florida High School Athletic Association’s authority to crack down on recruiting of high-school athletes.

“The fair thing is to allow these students to participate in the athletics, in the band, and in drama because after all, they are taxpayers,” he said. “They have made the decision to take their money and pay for a different kind of education, but are they not still taxpayers?”

The bill could come up for a final debate in the House on Thursday. As with last year’s legislation, its fate could hinge on what happens in the Senate, which has yet to advance similar legislation.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.