Florida Senate committee backs school vouchers for bullied students

  • Lloyd Dunkelberger
  • News Service of Florida
4:16 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 Politics
In this Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 photo, Dawn Graff holds a sign to protest bullying with other concerned parents and family members near Surfside Middle School, in Panama City Beach, Fla. Two 12-year-olds in Florida have been charged with cyberstalking in connection with the death of a student at the middle school, who police say hanged herself two weeks ago. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)

Students who are victims of bullying or sexual harassment would be eligible for voucher-like scholarships to attend private schools under a bill approved Monday by the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is sponsoring the legislation (SB 1172), said the “Hope Scholarship” program is designed to “empower” families when they find their children are victims of bullying or other incidents in the school system and they feel they are “in a situation in which they are trapped.”

“You want to stop the behavior,” Galvano said. “But you also want to empower the victim.”

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Under the bill, students in the public kindergarten-through-high-school system could qualify for the scholarships if they are victims of 10 specific types of incidents, ranging from bullying and harassment to kidnapping and sexual assault.

In an amendment approved Monday, the bill would require school principals to investigate the incidents before deciding whether students would be eligible for the scholarships.

Victimized students would also have the option of transferring to other public schools, rather than opting for the private-school scholarships.

The scholarships and transportation would be funded by Florida motorists who voluntarily agree to contribute $20 to the program when buying or registering vehicles. The donations would act as a credit against the sales taxes they would normally pay in vehicle transactions.

The tax credit would result in an estimated $7.9 million going to the scholarship program in the 2018-19 academic year, according to legislative analysts.

Opponents called the bill an expansion of Florida’s voucher system, which already includes scholarships funded by corporate tax credits that are used to send students to private schools. They also argued that letting a bullied student transfer may leave the bully in place at a school where he or she could victimize more students.

“This bill, while attempting to help victims, is likely to result in more children being victimized by failing to address the root cause of bullying, violence and harassment in the first place,” said Stephanie Kunkel, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in Florida. “And it’s yet another attempt to send more kids to private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers under the guise of protecting victims.”

Galvano said there are already rules and laws to deal with students who are identified as bullies or who commit other offenses against students.

“We need to have all the rules that are currently in place with regard to how misconduct is handled,” Galvano said.

He also said it would be unfair to simply seek to increase the penalties for students who are bullies, while ignoring the victims.

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You have to have both sides.”

Kunkel criticized the fact that the bill would shift $7.9 million in sales-tax revenue to the scholarships and transportation that otherwise could have been used in the state budget.

“The bill has the direct result of removing general revenue from schools and other programs,” Kunkel said.

Democratic senators who opposed the bill raised similar concerns.

“I do have a concern with the source and use of the funds utilized for this voucher,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

The bill passed in a 6-4 vote and will next go to the Senate Pre-K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

The measure is similar to a House scholarship bill (HB 1) that is a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

Senate passage of the bill could be a key to the two chambers reaching agreement this year on education policy, with the House pushing changes in the K-12 system, while the Senate has made a priority out of legislation impacting state universities and colleges.