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Vouchers for victims? Florida lawmakers debate a bill to offer scholarships to bullied students

By Jeffrey Solochek
Rep. Byron Donalds presents HB 1 to the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee on Nov. 8, 2017. [The Florida Channel]

Rep. Byron Donalds calls his proposal to give tax credit scholarships to bullied Florida students the "Hope Scholarship," and frames it as assistance to often-ignored victims.

"We're just trying to provide them a path out," the Naples Republican says.

But before HB 1 cleared its first stop in the Florida House's PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee Wednesday, even some Republicans who back school choice raised concerns with the measure, which Speaker Richard Corcoran introduced in October as priority legislation.

Rep. Sam Killebrew, for instance, complained that the bill focuses on removing children who are assaulted, while leaving the perpetrators in the school to possibly continue harassing others. The Winter Haven Republican said he couldn't vote for the measure if that piece remains unchanged.

Some also worried that the private schools receiving the students on scholarship would not face the same state scrutiny over bullying and violence as the public schools.

"I believe we should protect students wherever they go," said Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, as he questioned reporting provisions in the bill.

Panel Democrats echoed these views and added to them, suggesting the measure was not really about victims, but rather about vouchers.

The proposal would require public school districts to inform families of children who are subjected to "battery; harassment; hazing; bullying; kidnapping; physical attack; robbery; sexual offenses, harassment, assault, or battery; threat or intimidation; or fighting" that they are eligible to send their children to a different public or private school.

The families would be able to request a $750 transportation scholarship to pay for busing to another public school, or a tuition scholarship of about $7,000 to offset the cost of private school.

Funding would come from voluntary $20 sales tax contributions made when people buy a new motor vehicle in the state.

"Ultimately, this is a major policy shift, to start allowing our tax dollars of potentially every Floridian to go into this program," said Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat. "This is not going to stop here, mark my words. … We will see a new flow of our tax dollars into a voucher program."

He distinguished the model from the state's current scholarship for low-income students, which is supported by corporate donations made in exchange for tax credits.

Abruzzo and other Democrats on the panel said they would gladly back efforts that tackle the root causes of bullying and violence in schools. They argued that Donalds' bill did not take that route, offering children an exit rather than the hope of the measure's name.

Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Fort Pierce, further noted that the scholarships would be first come-first served, meaning that many victims could be left to deal with their classroom bullies anyway.

"I want to deal with this," Lee said. "But I don't want to deal with it for a few people."

Donalds sidestepped the voucher issue, focusing instead on the notion that families deserve choices when their children feel threatened at school. Districts already can punish bullies, he said, and they have plenty of anti-bullying programs in place.

Yet bullying still occurs.

The core purpose of his bill, Donalds said, is to allow "that mother to act in the best interest of her child."

He balked at the notion that some families might seek a scholarship for less than egregious incidents that occur in school. Some speakers pointed out that the bill does not differentiate between a beating and a playground scuffle.

"The reasonable parent is not going to say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to move my child,' because of a minor random incident," he said. "Would they still be afforded the information? Yes they would."

Because who in the Legislature can say what action is the one that breaks a student's will, he asked.

The bill has two more committee stops before reaching the House floor. It does not have a Senate companion.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]