Beginning this fall, Florida students can go to any public school in the state. Seen as a victory for proponents of school choice, the new law was signed by Gov. Rick Scott last year. It allows students to cross county borders as long as a school has room, and parents provide their own transportation.
Duval County - Florida's sixth-largest district with close to 129,000 - has had universal school choice since 2014. What could this county in Florida's northeast corner teach other public schools when statewide choice goes into effect?
Duval County still has school boundaries but school choice has been encouraged by the school district’s superintendent for three years. If a school has space, a student outside their zoned area can attend. There are some schools that are more highly sought after then others, such as ones with magnet programs, but Lindsey Kilbride, an education reporter for NPR station WJCT in Jacksonville, says that as long as a student can get to a school by their own means, they may attend that school.
“Why that has been important for our district,” Kilbride said, “is that there's always charter schools coming in. Charter schools are public schools but are privately run and in some ways they are competition for traditional public schools. So when our district creates new magnet programs, they can keep students in public schools. This is sort of keeping that money in traditional public schools because when a student leaves to go to a charter school, their funding goes with them.”
Kilbride said she has heard concerns surrounding the issue of student transportation.
“This is really beneficial to students who have that transportation,” she said of the ability to transfer across town or across school boundaries. “Some students don't have that. There are people who are worried that it can segregate schools because people with a certain income can go to these schools and other students might not have the means. Skeptics are saying this is really benefiting more well-off kids.”
With school choice going statewide beginning in the next school year, neighboring St. John’s County also could feel an impact.
“It’s known for having really good schools,” Kilbride said of the county immediately to the south of Duval. "A lot of that has to do with the fact that it has a fewer amount of schools and people are higher income in that area. They may be able to pay for tutoring and things like that. So in general, the schools have higher school grades.”
There are only four schools now in St. John's County that say they have room in them for the next school year.
“Something that people are concerned about is that it's tough to plan if your schools are just going to be automatically filled up," said Kilbride. "If the state gives you the go ahead you can build another school. So you build another school and then that school is automatically filled up with kids flooding in from a different county."
But she added, students inside of a district do get priority.
"But there is also a concern about individual school districts being allowed to define capacity," she said. “People aren't sure if that's going to stick around. I know some of our school board members were saying how long is that going to last before the state starts determining if your school is at capacity or not.”
Kilbride adds that another unknown is how school choice will affect individual school district's budgets.
“Typically school districts budget on what their per-pupil funding will be," she said. "So if students are going to other districts, that can make budgeting for the next school year a little bit difficult. They really don't know how many students they are going to have in their district.”