A scholarship program originally intended to help students who are victims of bullying or other types of harassment can extend to students who have not experienced any bullying at all.
What’s going on?
The Florida legislature is considering legislation to expand a voucher program called the Hope Scholarship, which would potentially allow more students to enroll in the program. These new students will qualify if they attend a school that has a problem with state education officials due to non-compliance with state laws or state board rules.
This means that if a student is currently enrolled in a district public school sanctioned by the state board of education, that student can apply for the Hope Scholarship and transfer to a different private school, public school, or school in a different district.
This legislation, SB 506, is a continuation of Florida policy that is being formed as a response to the ongoing debate about mask requirements in schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is sponsored by Senator Manny Diaz, a Republican who is part of Miami-Dade County and does not currently have an accompanying bill in the House of Representatives.
“Especially with the outcry we’ve seen recently from parents who are upset with school boards for various reasons — including, in some cases, where they (school boards) decided not to follow the law — and they are increasingly frustrated,” Diaz said at a Senate Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, This gives these parents the option to make this decision for their student.
“This legislature has spoken time and time again, and very clearly, that parents have rights over their child,” Diaz continued. “This allows them to make that decision in a situation where they may feel despondent due to the fact that the area has broken the law or the rules and is not abiding, giving them (parents) an option for them to take advantage of their students.”
Karen Mazola, of the Florida Parent Teachers’ Association (PTA), opposed the bill, saying the scholarships could be used to fund the money to improve the state’s public school system.
“Our system must be strengthened and continued to be administered by public officials, accountable to the public, and supported by public funding,” she told the Senate Education Committee while testifying before the public.
Bill 6 through 4 was approved, with Republican lawmakers and Democratic lawmakers supporting in opposition.
Staff analysis of the legislation cited recent conflict between state education officials and local school boards, in which eight school boards have been financially penalized by the state, targeting school board salaries to implement strict mask policies.
The DeSantis administration has been adamant that parents, not school boards, have the final say in whether students wear a mask at school, citing a Florida law called the “Parental Rights Act” that says parents supervise and direct their children’s health care.
But some local school boards implemented strict mandates on masks anyway, saying they wanted to protect students and staff during a time when COVID cases were increasing in Florida due to the delta type of virus.
The case led to legal battles, federal involvement, and a special hearing that created laws explicitly prohibiting school districts from mandating masks.
Now, all school districts are complying and none of Florida’s 67 school districts has a strict mask mandate, even with the emergence of a newly identified COVID variant called omicron.
The debate over who decides whether students wear masks at school, parents or elected school boards, has persisted for some time, and SB 506 wasn’t the first time state officials expanded the Hope Scholarship function to accommodate parents who disagree with it. How the regions dealt with COVID.
In early August, the Florida Department of Education created an emergency law that allowed parents to use the Hope Grant for so-called “COVID harassment.”
The emergency rule defines COVID harassment as: “Any threatening, discriminatory, degrading or inhumane behavior that is verbal, written, or physical experienced by a student in connection with or as a result of school district protocols for COVID-19, including requirements for concealment, dismissal or segregation of students , or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have a significant impact on a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits…”
This was a change from what was happening in the past with regards to the Hope Scholarships in Florida. These taxpayer-funded scholarships are for students who have been bullied, harassed, assaulted, or otherwise harmed.
Since the state assembly approved the emergency law, families have applied for the COVID-Harassing Hope Grants and have successfully transferred to different schools relocating schools, according to Scott Kent, communications officer at Step Up for Students, who oversees scholarship programs in Florida.
Kent told The Phoenix by email that there were 349 applications for the Hope Scholarship citing COVID harassment, and 65 of those students were transferred to another school due to COVID harassment.
The Step Up program for students in support of SB 506 was waived during Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting.