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  • Jesse Scheckner, Florida Politics

Erin Grall pitches bill allowing charter school athletes to play in private academy programs

The proposed legislation would give charter school students more choices about where they can play sports.

For years, Master’s Academy in Vero Beach welcomed charter school students into its varsity football program. The arrangement hinged on an interpretation of state statutes that permit homeschool students to play at their nearby public school or a willing private school of their choice.

But someone lodged a challenge to that arrangement with the Sunshine State Athletic Conference last year, forcing the charter school players off the team’s roster in the middle of their senior year. The conference also overturned all of the wins the Master’s Academy Patriots notched up until that point, demoting the team to a lower bracket ahead of the state playoffs (which they ended up winning anyway).

“We were heartbroken,” said Wayne Smith, the head of school at Master’s Academy.

“It hurt us, but more than that it hurt these charter school boys who had nowhere else to play, nowhere else they could go, and suddenly they were without a team — kicked off a winning team, nonetheless.”

Master’s Academy is a small school with only around 45 high school students. It participates in an eight-player football program under the SSAC. The area public school has hundreds and “maybe even 1,000,” Smith said, and plays under the authority of the Florida High School Athletics Association, whose teams have 11 players per side.

“The charter school boys, if they went to the public school to play, would hardly ever be able to make their team,” he said. “So, they come to us.”

But while Florida law currently allows homeschool students to participate in private school athletics, that provision does not extend to kids enrolled in charter schools, who can only do so at the public school they’d otherwise be assigned to under their district area enrollment policy.

“They were denied. They were told they were no longer in compliance, that the statute did not allow this, (and so the charter school students) weren’t going to be permitted to finish their season,” Republican Sen. Erin Grall said.

Grall is now sponsoring a bill (SB 190) to address the issue. Republican Rep. Robert Brackett, the immediate past Mayor of Vero Beach, is carrying an identical measure (HB 259) in the House.

If approved, the legislation would allow charter school students across Florida to “develop an agreement to participate at a private school … in any interscholastic extracurricular activity of that school.”

The student would not be able to seek a program elsewhere if his or her school already offers one in-house. And of course, the private school must be open to having the student in its program.

It’s a simple change, Grall said, but it’s a positive step toward providing parents and students broader educational and extracurricular choices.

“From my perspective, the parent makes the decision not to send their child to the public school they’re zoned for and instead chooses to send their child to a charter school. There may be a reason the parent might not want to send their child to play sports at the zoned school — a different level of competition available somewhere else or some other affiliation with the private school,” she said.

“This lines up the homeschooling statute with the charter school student statute … to fix it and make it more clear.”

Brackett said the measure enhances school choice options for parents and their kids.

“Parents choose to send students to a particular school,” he said. “Under this bill, they would have the option of also including athletics in that.”


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