Florida district officials talk school choice

Parents and students want options. And, increasingly, Florida school districts are finding ways to offer them. That was the message officials from two large districts brought to state House panel looking at all the state’s forms of school choice.

Marc Mora
Marc Mora explains Lee County’s school choice programs to the Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

Marc Mora is chief of staff at the Lee County School district, which has operated an open enrollment program for 20 years. The district is divided into three geographic zones, and assigns families to schools in a lottery. The system is designed to let families choose their schools, and ensure they get an option reasonably close to home. Mora said 82 percent of families get their first choice of school, and 96 percent get one of their top three.

“We know that parents desire a choice of schools, to see a list, to be able to visit during these open-house periods, to meet with the principals, to take a tour, to see what the students and teachers are doing,” he said, adding: “We encourage parents to go out to the schools and check them out, because … every school is unique, and there’s a fit for every student.”

Since it was first created 20 years ago, Lee County’s open enrollment system has helped solve other problems, from helping the district comply with court-ordered desegregation to eliminating the need for endless boundary changes to accommodate constant influxes of new students in fast-growing Southwest Florida.

Open enrollment systems like Lee’s are expanding statewide under a new state law that districts are starting to implement.

But Mora said the district is also creating new magnet and career academies that attract students to certain schools. Several factors have spurred districts to expand these options. A 2013 law created new financial incentives for districts to steer their students toward industry certifications, leading to the creation of new career academies.

Competition from charter schools may also play a role. Mora presented data showing enrollment in district schools continues growing steadily, even as charters open and close. The numbers, he said, suggest the district’s options are attractive.

Carolyn Bridges, of Polk County, said the district started strategically adding magnet programs to turn around its worst-performing schools. A new

Carolyn Bridges talks magnet schools with the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.
Carolyn Bridges talks magnet schools with the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

STEM focus helped bring the F-rated Dundee Elementary up to a B on the state’s A-F grading scale in a matter of three years. The new choice program displaced some neighborhood students. But while the magnet attracted students from elsewhere in the district, Bridges said she looked at test score data and found the students who remained at the school were improving, too.

Working with 3-D printers and making prosthetic limbs seems to have helped the students engage with their coursework and enjoy coming to school. Their improvements carried on to Dundee Ridge Middle School. Student achievement there also languished three years ago, but now it’s winning state awards.

“We took those students, gave a focus, gave them a sense of ownership and pride, and they are doing tremendous things,” Bridges said.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee wanted to know how to replicate that sense of ownership in more public schools.

Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, said he wanted to visit Lee County to learn about its all-choice system. He said he wanted all students in district schools to have access to a charter-like experience.

“I’m just concerned about all of these kids, that in my opinion, are being left behind because they don’t have some of the same opportunities,” he said.

Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, wanted to know what barriers state lawmakers could remove to help districts expand the programs Bridges described.

She said the state should offer more grants (which helped Polk’s magnet programs get off the ground) and consider waivers that ease regulations (there’s an existing state program with that goal in mind, but for several reasons, districts have shown little interest).

Now that public-school students can cross district lines and attendance boundaries, Bridges said, districts might need to get more creative about expanding their choice offerings.

“I love the choice piece because it forces us to think differently,” she said. “It forces us to be more inclusive. We think we’re really inclusive and then you tell us, ‘look at other districts.'”

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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.