Concerns from senators and an advocacy group about expanding a scholarship voucher program designed to help victims of bullying in Florida schools — which can now include even students who aren’t physically, mentally, or online bullying — couldn’t move the needle in education last week at a committee meeting in Tallahassee .
Senator Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah Gardens) introduced Senate Bill 506, which would allow parents to choose where their child goes to school, some at taxpayer expense, simply if they reside in a school district found to be in noncompliance State laws.
In the case of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for example, it was one of eight school districts sanctioned for mask mandates, which the Diaz bill shows as a form of bullying.
Senator Diaz said parents are “becoming increasingly frustrated” when it comes to their children getting a proper education with requirements such as enforcing a mask.
“…This allows them (parents) to make that decision in the event that they may feel hopeless due to the fact that the district has broken the law or the rules, and is not obligated, (provides) an option for them to make,” he said at last Tuesday’s meeting at the Capitol.
Senator Laurie Berman (Democrat of Boynton Beach) was among those with concerns.
“As far as I understand, a bully is allowed to stay in school and all you have to say is have you been bullied and allowed to leave school?” She asked. “Even if the investigation finds that you were not bullied, you are still allowed to take advantage of this scholarship… I don’t think it is a good use of our taxpayer money at all, and… to vote against the bill today.”
However, the bill passed its first step by a 6-4 margin, with all Democrats voting against it and all Republicans voting in favour. Now, SB 506 is heading to an appropriations subcommittee on January 11th.
There is no accompanying bill in the House of Representatives yet.
SB 506 calls for “Review of the Purpose of the Hope Scholarship Program and Review of Program Eligibility” as well as permitting scholarship funds to be paid into an Education Savings Account in lieu of a direct check to the student’s parents.
Launched in 2018, the Hope Scholarship program is the first state to offer private school vouchers specifically targeting students who are bullied or assaulted in public schools. It is designed to help eligible families whose children are being bullied and want to transfer to either another public school (with travel expenses not exceeding $750) or to a private school (with an estimated allowance of $7,000 annually), both of which are considered “safer” places.
In August, the state Board of Education approved a new emergency rule that allows parents of children facing “COVID-19 harassment” the opportunity to apply for Hope Scholarship vouchers and transfer their children to a private school or other school district. It followed Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order, which called for rules that would protect parents’ decisions when it comes to whether or not to wear masks.
Bullying is widespread nationwide
How important is bullying? One in five students nationwide between the ages of 12 and 18 say they’ve been bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly 160,000 teens have dropped out of school because of bullying, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics-National Association for Education, and 1 in 10 cited repeated bullying as a reason for dropping out of school.
Bullying can lead to poor grades and low self-esteem. Florida anti-bullying law includes harassment, harassment, theft, sexual assault, cyberbullying, racial or religious harassment, harassment, intimidation, stalking, and even bullying by teachers.
Reportedly, Florida public schools have a community rate of only 0.1% of the reported bullying rate, with nearly two out of three public schools reporting none.
The latest numbers show that over 1,800 Hope scholarships have been awarded averaging $7,000, and 1,934 schools plus are actively participating in the state’s program.
Senator Berman asked if the excess money could be used elsewhere.
“If $78 million is allocated to this program and only $2.9 million is used, could some of that money not be used for other scholarships?” She asked. (Diaz said some funds could be made available for the Family Empowerment Grant after the fiscal year.)
Karen Mazola, a spokeswoman for the Florida Parent Teacher Association, opposed the bill, telling the Islander News, “Why not use this money to strengthen public schools? The PTA in Florida has a long standing position, both nationally and statewide, to oppose things like giving vouchers that take Money from public education.”
Questions about money flow
Senator Diaz’s proposal for an expansionary grant of hope program raised more questions.
Senator Tina Polsky (D-Boca Raton), who in October gained national attention after she asked the new Florida surgeon General Joseph Ladabo, who was unconvincing, to leave her office, and later received death threats for her actions, had several problems with SB 506 .
First, she wanted to know if a new private school costs, say, only $5,000 a year, and you happen to receive $10,000 from the scholarship program, so where does the rest go?
Funding, based on the district’s student allocation, is transferred to an educational savings account, and the excess funds, if any, can be used for “curriculum, tuition, and specialized assessments,” according to Senator Diaz.
A look at just two private schools in Miami-Dade County shows that tuition is more than the average allotment of $7,000 in the Hope program. According to US News and World Report, annual tuition, for example, at Miami Union Academy is $7,985 for the top grades and $10,500 at Miami Christian School for the highest grade offered.
With SB 506, the school board must take action against the school district and note that the district is out of compliance before the student uses that portion of the extended bill.
“Even if you don’t qualify (under harassment protocols), you change school and still get paid?” asked Senator Polsky.
“This grant enables parents to make that decision, whether to bring a teacher home,” Senator Diaz said, noting that teachers are not necessarily teachers, but can be homeschooling parents or other support staff.
“Just to be clear, can I take the money, homeschool my kid, pay myself to be the person’s teacher or pay a friend to be the teacher?” asked Senator Polsky.
In fact, no money is exchanged on transfer to another public school, except for travel stipends, if required.
Senator Polsky also asked, “Originally, if there was a bullying incident and a student left and (later found out) they weren’t really bullied, what happens?”
Senator Diaz said, “Once a student becomes eligible, there is no waiting for verification—that is the current law. Once a student is on the Hope Scholarship (program), as long as the parent continues to enroll the student,” that child remains eligible.
Senator Berman asked if a child applies while the school district is in noncompliance, the district complies, does that child lose the right to transfer money?
Senator Diaz said, “Once a student becomes eligible, he or she continues to use it, no matter what action school districts next take.”
Currently, none of Florida’s 67 school districts is in noncompliance, so no child can benefit from the expanded scholarship program yet under this standard, Senator Diaz said, other than bullying or harassment.
Several groups have waived support for SB 506, including Americans for Prosperity and the Florida Citizens Alliance, with spokeswoman Heidi Daniels saying, “As the mother of a child who was bullied for months…we actually had to move across town to get her to a better school.” “. She wanted to announce the Hope Scholarship more, so that more parents could benefit from the program.
Also important was Bill support for Step Up for Students, the Jacksonville nonprofit that oversees Florida scholarship programs.
Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, told the Islander News that the program “supports legislation that expands families’ education options.” “Education Providers Accounts (ESAs) provide parents with the flexibility to spend their education money in ways that are tailored to student learning, by allowing them to select education settings, materials, and services that best suit their children’s needs. This helps public education deliver on the promise of equal opportunity.”
According to the Florida Phoenix, Kent said, overall, there were 349 applications for the Hope Scholarship due to COVID bullying or harassment, with 65 of those students transferring to another school.
“As long as the money keeps coming from the state (for the expanded proposal), we will continue to speak out against it, unless they change it significantly,” Mazola, with the Florida PTA, said. “Manny Diaz knows we have a long standing position on this.”