Florida is poised to become the first state to offer private-school vouchers specifically to students who are bullied or physically attacked in their public schools.
The Florida legislature passed a sprawling education bill this week that, among several other unrelated provisions, creates a new scholarship program for students who suffer from harassment or violence to attend private schools—paid for with tax credits—and further boosts the state’s already expansive private-school choice offerings.
Supporters—who argued that bullied students need to be able to escape schools that aren’t protecting them—predict the idea will catch on with parents and lawmakers beyond Florida, and potentially kick off a wave of similar legislation beyond the state.
“Because once Florida does it, other states can follow that model,” said Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an influential education advocacy and lobbying group founded by Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor. “Parents have to have leverage to make sure their child is getting what they need. And that power comes from the ability to say this is not working for our child and to go elsewhere.”
But some anti-bullying groups say giving students vouchers to change schools does nothing to address the root causes of bullying and harassment. And experts on bullying point out that private schools are not immune from the problem.
“What research that is available suggests that there isn’t much difference in bullying rates in private schools versus a public school,” said Deborah Temkin, the senior director for education research at Child Trends who previously led anti-bullying efforts for the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration. “It doesn’t mean that a private school will be a better environment. Because they are autonomous and don’t have to follow the same rules [as public schools], there are fewer remedies for families” whose children are being bullied.
The massive bill—which includes a provision to require school districts to display the words “In God We Trust” prominently in school buildings—has not yet been signed by Gov. Rick Scott. But many of the bill’s initiatives, including the new voucher program, are a priority of Republican Richard Corcoran, the speaker of the Florida House, and it’s unlikely Scott will veto the measure.
Major Expansion of Private School Choice
Florida already gives families more avenues to use public aid to attend private school than just about any other state in the country—a major reason why U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos holds the state up as a national model for school choice.
The Hope Scholarships, as the vouchers for bullied students are to be called, will be the fourth private school choice program in the state.
Right now, roughly 140,000 students with disabilities and from low-income families participate in Florida’s other private-school choice programs, and if their popularity is any indication, the new Hope Scholarships will be in high demand.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education estimates that around 47,000 Florida students will be eligible for the new vouchers.
Under the approved legislation, vouchers for bullied students would not be funded directly by the state like a more traditional voucher program. The funding source would be sales tax credits on automobile purchases. When someone buys a car in Florida, they would have the option to give $105 they would otherwise pay in sales tax to the scholarship fund. The program would be capped at $41 million a year.
Eligible students and their families would have two options under the program. They could receive roughly $6,700 to use toward tuition costs at a private school, or they could elect to transfer to another public school inside or outside their home district and receive up to $750 to pay for transportation costs.
To be considered eligible for the new vouchers, a student would have to report to his or her school that they were a victim of harassment or physical assault. The legislation outlines the types of incidents that would make students eligible, including battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses, assault, threat or intimidation, or fighting in school.
Once an incident is reported, a school principal would have 15 days to conduct an investigation. Regardless of the outcome of that investigation, the school district would be required to inform the parents of the victim that their student is eligible for money to transfer to a private school or another public school.
The Florida Department of Education would also be required to review bullying prevention programs and school climate at any school that has had 10 or more students opt into the Hope Scholarship program.
The vouchers were staunchly opposed by Democratic lawmakers in Florida as well as the teachers unions.
Some anti-bullying advocates in the state are not embracing it either. Lowell Levine, the founder of the Stop Bullying Now Foundation, based in South Florida, is one of them. He called the legislation a bandage, not a cure.
“The problem with the bill is that it does not address the problem,” said Levine. “If the [bullied] child leaves the public school, the bully is going to pick on someone else.”
Florida’s established private-school choice initiatives would also get a boost from the bill. The state’s tax-credit scholarships for low-income students and the Gardiner education savings accounts for students with severe disabilities are also set to get an infusion of money from a new funding source. Businesses renting commercial property can now elect to direct some of their sales tax on leases toward those programs. That funding stream is capped at $57.5 million a year.
The bill also creates an education savings account program for students who are struggling with reading. However, the funds can only be used for tutors and other after-school programs, not for paying tuition costs at private schools.
More Regulations for Private Schools?
Despite the growing roster of students using state aid to pay for a private education in Florida, the private schools participating in those scholarship programs face relatively little regulation in a state known for having one of the most stringent public-school accountability systems in the country.
Private schools do not receive letter grades based on how well students perform on state standardized tests as their public-school peers do, nor are they required to be accredited by an independent agency and few opt to do so, according to a review of data by Education Week.
And unlike public schools, private schools don’t have to track how many students are bullied, drop out, or get expelled, as Education Week detailed in a recent story. If a private school decides not to admit a student, asks a student to leave, or to act on complaints of bullying, there’s little legal recourse for parents to challenge those decisions.
That was the case for members of the Florea family, who used a voucher to send their daughter Jessica, who has dwarfism, epilepsy, and autism, to a private school in Jupiter, Fla. Jessica, who is now 14, was being bullied in her private school, according to her mother, Erica Florea, and when she complained to the school, administrators there took no action to help her daughter. When Erica Florea confronted one of the students she believed was harassing her daughter, the school expelled Jessica. Erica Florea said a lawyer she contacted told her she had no legal recourse. She also said her complaints to state officials and the nonprofit organization that manages the voucher program also went nowhere.
There has been some legislative effort this year to more closely regulate the state’s private school sector as more and more taxpayer money flows into those schools in the form of vouchers. Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Orlando have sought to require that private schools hire teachers with at minimum a bachelor’s degree and to bar school leaders who have recent bankruptcies on their records from participating in the voucher programs. Those efforts were spurred by an Orlando Sentinel investigation which found several instances of private schools hiring teachers without any college education, fudging health and safety records, and hiring staff with criminal backgrounds, among other things.
Currently, private schools do not have to provide proof to the state that staff they employ have passed criminal background checks, but that would change under the bill that also created the new vouchers for bullied students. The measure includes other provisions that should make it more difficult for schools to falsify fire inspections, a problem exposed in the Orlando Sentinel report.
Among the other new regulations required under the bill: the Florida Department of Education will have to make site visits to private schools new to the voucher programs, and schools receiving more than $250,000 in tuition through the scholarship programs will have to submit annual financial reports either to the state or to the organization that runs and administers the scholarships.
Although private schools are still not compelled to hire teachers with a college degree, they will have to publicly disclose in writing to parents or on their websites the qualifications of their classroom teachers.
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