The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved a rule to help move forward with a controversial new program that will let bullied students transfer to private schools.
With some 2.8 million students returning to their classrooms next month, “Hope” scholarships will allow students who are victims of bullying or other violence to receive public funding to move to private schools or other public schools.
The program, a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, was approved this year by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott. Under it, once an incident is reported to a school principal, the school district must notify the student’s parents about the scholarship opportunity within 15 days or upon the completion of an investigation, whichever occurs first.
The rule approved by the state board includes a “notification form” that will be sent to parents if a student is involved in an incident that could qualify for the scholarship. The form specifically cites 10 types of incidents including bullying, harassment, hazing, threat or intimidation, physical attacks and fighting. Potentially more-violent incidents include battery, kidnapping, robbery and sexual offenses.
Tom Grady, a member of the state board, asked what provisions are in place to prevent fraud or abuse in the new voucher-like scholarship program.
“What prevents someone who would just like to have a scholarship to attend another school from simply claiming they are the victim of the incident that would give rise to the scholarship?” Grady asked.
Adam Miller, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, said in addition to the specific eligibility categories cited in the new law, there is an additional “evaluation process” for schools that have a higher number of transfers.
If a school reports 10 or more students have used Hope scholarships to leave, it will trigger an independent evaluation of that school, Miller said.
“A third party actually goes in and evaluates the climate of school, will evaluate the investigation process that takes place at the school district. And some of that (possible abuse of the program) comes to light through that evaluation process,” Miller said.
Grady also asked how qualifying incidents are defined. Miller said the school districts will use standards already in place under the state’s “school environmental safety incident reporting system.”
For instance, bullying is defined as “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students or employees that is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”
The Hope scholarship plan drew heavy debate during this year’s legislative session, with many Democrats arguing it is more about expanding school vouchers than addressing problems with bullying.
In the 2015-2016 school year, districts reported more than 47,000 incidents that could qualify under the new scholarship program, with nearly 22,000 fighting incidents being the most common.
However, funding for the scholarships is unclear, at least in the first year, and could limit their use.
The program will rely on voluntary contributions made by Floridians when they buy new or used vehicles. Beginning Oct. 1, motorists will be able shift up to $105 from the sales taxes they would normally pay on vehicle transactions to the Hope scholarship program.
But state officials and Step Up For Students, a non-profit agency that will administer the scholarships, do not expect to start seeing the actual contributions until late November or early December.
State analysts project 7,302 partial-year Hope scholarships being awarded in the 2018-2019 school year, with some $27 million in funding. The scholarships will be awarded on a “first-come, first-served” basis.
Once fully implemented for private-school transfers, the scholarships, which are based on the statewide per-student funding level, would be worth more than $7,112 for high-school students for a full year, $6,816 for middle-school students and $6,519 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The program provides up to $750 in transportation costs for students transferring to other public schools.
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