Florida School Choice Bill Has a Hidden Reform: Part-Time Enrollment
Florida lawmakers are advancing ambitious K–12 legislation as more families move toward an à la carte approach to education.
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Updated March 27
On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1, a law expanding Florida’s private school voucher program and authorizing public schools to enroll students on a part-time basis. At the bill signing in Miami, DeSantis said the legislation represented “the largest expansion of education choice not only in the history of this state, but in the history of these United States.”
Families in Florida could soon gain an important new freedom under state law — the opportunity to mix and match public and private or home schooling.
Already a reality in several states, part-time public enrollment would allow private and homeschool students to essentially pick and choose among classes at nearby schools, whether traditional or charter. Participation by those schools would be voluntary, and they would be compensated proportionally for the additional pupils taught.
The change is included in a larger school choice bill, the debate over which is expected to dominate Tallahassee’s 2023 legislative session. Most of the discussion around that proposal focuses on its central provision, which would gradually extend voucher-like “education savings accounts” to every family in the state. Coming amid a red-state rush toward more educational options, the legislation would make Florida one of the nation’s friendliest states for school choice.
Unlike the ESA expansion, a move toward part-time public enrollment wouldn’t carry a potential billion-dollar price tag. But it could deliver its own, more subtle, shock to K-12 education in the state. Demand for alternative schooling arrangements swelled during the pandemic, and while estimates of the surge are complicated by conflicting data, thousands of families seem to have permanently parted ways with public school systems. In Florida alone, over 150,000 students received their schooling primarily at home during the 2021-22 academic year — a 69% increase over the preceding five years — and experts believe that additional support from the state could push still more to explore new options.
“Part-time enrollment is something families are very interested in,” said Alex Spurrier, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit research and consulting group. “If it’s embraced more by states and local districts, you could see more families decide to get off the fence and move to a more flexible learning environment for their kids.”
Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Florida-based advocacy group ExcelinEd, observed that “mindsets changed” during the pandemic, as a sizable number of parents experienced both disappointment with the performance of American schools and a growing sense of confidence in their own ability to venture outside of traditional public offerings. While many aren’t ready to make a year-round commitment to homeschooling, for instance, they might be willing to split the difference with their local districts.
“I think a lot of families got that taste of greater involvement in their children’s education and realized, ‘I can do this, I enjoy it, and I want to be a part of it,’” Levesque said.
No mandate for now
The idea may be unfamiliar even to some education policy veterans, but part-time enrollment is already a feature of the K-12 landscape around the country.
A 2021 report from ExcelinEd identified 12 states that expressly allow part-time enrollment, ranging from deep-blue Illinois to bright-red Idaho. But availability and comprehensiveness vary, with only six states defining access to part-time schooling as a student right. States also differ in how much public schools can be paid for accepting part-time students, as well as how many courses can be offered on a part-time basis.
The legislative language of Florida’s statute, known as HB 1, does not include a mandate for school or district participation in the initiative, merely specifying that “any public school in this state, including a charter school, may enroll a student on a part-time basis.” Levesque — also serving as the executive director of ExcelinEd’s sister group Foundation for Florida’s Future, which advocated for the development of a part-time enrollment policy — said the door is still open for legislators to revisit a possible requirement in the years to come.
“I like to start by making things permissive, and then you let the innovators go after it,” Levesque observed. “Districts or schools that really want to take advantage of the flexibility can pave the way and they show the others what can be done.”
Part-time enrollment has parallels to another policy that caught on quickly over the last decade: Tebow Laws, which permit homeschoolers to take part in their local schools’ sports and other extracurricular activities. Named after former University of Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, the measures have been adopted in 31 states, though they remain controversial in some. (Kansas, which passed a form of part-time enrollment last year, is now considering legislation related to participation in high school sports, while legislators in Virginia have repeatedly rejected similar proposals in recent years.)
Survey evidence suggests that a significant portion of homeschoolers may already spend a few hours per week in an institutional school, a practice sometimes referred to as “flexischooling” or “hybrid homeschooling.” That phenomenon gained traction over the last few years as more families either willingly embraced, or resigned themselves to, the sporadic availability of in-person learning.
“[The pandemic] has further called into question the model that attending school means showing up for six or seven hours in a building every day,” said Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University and the managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research. “Certainly the pandemic has accelerated the sense that this is not only something that is possible, but is desirable and beneficial.”
Opportunities for districts
For schools, part-time enrollment offers an enticing opportunity to boost their own head counts after multiple years of declining K-12 enrollment. More than 1 million students left their district schools in 2020 and 2021, often as a result of frustrations related to school closures and online learning.
Better still, fuller classrooms come with more public funding. Florida’s proposed law would reimburse districts for the part-time students they enroll. If, say, a private school student chose to take AP biology at a nearby public school, the state would fund the school for one-sixth of a full-time student (based on the benchmark that a full-time student takes six courses); if she also enrolled in a Latin course with space available, the funding would increase proportionally to one-third that of a full-time student.
But logistical challenges remain. Any part-time students would need transportation to and from school buildings, potentially on irregular schedules — a serious complication in Florida, where major districts are already experiencing severe shortages of bus drivers. (As part of the state’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, eligible families can already receive up to $750 to offset the cost of school transportation.) Transcripts and other student data would theoretically need to be shared between schools and families as well, Bellwether’s Spurrier said, to say nothing of the difficulty of tracking the whereabouts of various students within campuses.
“Absent policy supports on some of those concerns, [interest in part-time enrollment] might not be to the scale that you might expect given the desire we’ve seen parents express for new models of learning,” Spurrier said.
That desire is clear. In a February poll commissioned by the advocacy group EdChoice, a narrow plurality of parents said they would prefer for their children to study at home between one and four days of the week. An additional 15% said they would rather opt for full-time homeschooling, representing a clear majority in favor of an à la carte approach of some fashion. Those attitudes mirror a broader swing identified in the annual Education Next survey, which showed a nine-point increase (to 54% from 45%) in public approval for homeschooling over the past five years.
And as COVID spurred more families to experiment with alternative educational models — from learning pods to microschools — the demographics of the homeschooling movement have also shifted. A population that once disproportionately attracted religious and right-leaning families has become somewhat more diverse, Kunzman noted, and likely more open to cooperating with local educators and school authorities on a class-to-class and year-to-year basis.
“It’s now less of an absolute, ideological commitment to homeschooling and more, ‘What do I perceive as best for my child for this coming year?’”
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