School districts in South Florida are large, mostly county-wide areas, but they could soon become smaller city and suburban districts if a legislative proposal passes.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) and Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-Ft. Myers) sponsored a bill that would allow partisan elections, and in some cases city and county commissions might become school boards. Seven of the current county districts have at least 100,000 students.
Florida has five of the country’s 12 largest school districts. But parents have been concerned that the broad divisions have allowed schools to fail or remain in a state of disrepair, or that some children are zoned to attend schools outside their home city.
Scott Travis of the Sun Sentinel quoted Jack Scott, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton:
“The size of our school districts is way larger than they need to be, and there’s a real heavy emphasis on bureaucracy. I think smaller school districts are often much more responsive to people in the area.”
He added that an area as large as Miami-Dade, the country’s fifth-largest district with 350,000 students, is often too large to be accountable to the parents, state, and students.
There could be problems with the smaller districts idea, including increased costs and more inequity between wealthy and low-income schools, reports Jeffrey S. Solochek for the Tampa Bay Times. In poor communities, residents do not have the ability to raise the same amount of taxes as more affluent areas, according to some education advocates. But Brandes told the Tampa Bay Times that the proposal allows for more local control and reduces the amount of bureaucracy.
In 1998, Ron Klein (D-Boca Raton) proposed the division of the state’s 13 largest districts, but the bill died because of concerns that it might harm inner-city schools. It was a hit with residents of Boca Raton, however, because they had long desired more autonomy in their schools. Mayor Susan Haynie said it would probably still have support in the city.
The proposal is not without its critics. The legislation is much like the school governance changes in Louisiana and Tennessee, according to the naysayers. Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, says the public may see the move as a continuing effort to undermine public education in her state.
Tracy Damron-Roelle, a Sarasota parent activist, said:
“The smallest, poorest districts are given the taxes generated in their districts while the more affluent districts keep their money. Equitable funding is necessary if the low-income areas are to attempt to succeed.”
John O’Connor reports for WLRN Public Radio Miami that some county districts might break into multiple school districts, or some school districts might include students from various counties. If the idea is approved, some cities could run a school district made up of charter schools.