Sunday, October 21, 2018

Florida school officials seek clarity on rules for private-school scholarships to bullied students

Now that private-school scholarships for bullied Florida students are a reality, public school district leaders want to know exactly who will qualify for the available funds.

They made clear Wednesday their concerns that the program could be ripe for abuse by families more interested in getting vouchers than in protecting  children who really were victimized.

"The way the statute reads, we would have to make the scholarship [notification] available even if the allegations were not merited," Santa Rosa County assistant superintendent Bill Emerson said during an hour-long rule-making conference call. "What we're asking is if we've interpreted that correctly."

State Department of Education officials couldn't disagree.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, responded to Emerson by reading from the law, which was included in HB 7055 passed in the spring.

It reads, in relevant part, "a student enrolled in a Florida public school in kindergarten through grade 12 is eligible for a scholarship under this program if the student reported an incident" listed in the law. Those include bullying, fighting, sexual harassment and several other offenses.

Once a principal receives a report, the school must investigate the incident. Miller continued reading:

"Upon conclusion of the investigation or within 15 days after the incident was reported, whichever occurs first, the school district shall notify the parent of the program and offer the parent an opportunity to enroll his or her student in another public school that has capacity or to request and receive a scholarship to attend an eligible private school, subject to available funding."

What if two students were equally involved in a fight and neither reported it? Would the district have to inform families of the scholarship program, asked St. Johns County government relations liaison Beth Sweeny.

Not if the student doesn't initiate a report, Miller said.

But what if both students report being involved in a fight or another of the listed offenses?

"Then the notification would go to both," Miller answered.

This scenario has been a driving concern of the scholarship critics, who pointed out that the law as written does not prevent someone from creating a situation simply to get a state-supported private school scholarship.

A May 30 report from the PreK-12 Education Impact Conference estimated that 7,302 Hope Scholarships will be awarded to students in the 2018-2019 school year, with the most going to kids in sixth through eighth grades because of the bullying rates in those groups.

The report estimates that $27 million will be collected for the pilot year, which will come from people who elect to have the sales tax from a car purchase directed toward the Hope Scholarship fund, per the new law. That money is expected to be available to start being distributed to students in late 2018.

The Senate attempted to rewrite the bill to offer scholarships to students with "substantiated" incidents, but the House did not agree.

Proponents questioned why a family would disrupt its school life unless the children had true safety problems. The bill sponsors repeatedly said their goal was to give victims a way out.

They did leave the door open for less egregious incidents to qualify.

"The reasonable parent is not going to say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to move my child,' because of a minor random incident," sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds said in November, when presenting the measure in committee. "Would they still be afforded the information? Yes they would."

Emerson said the districts were asking the Department of Education to consider tightening up that aspect within the rule. Miller said that couldn't happen.

"We don't have the ability to revise what is explicitly provided for in the law," Miller said.

The department will continue to take comments on the proposed rule on its website until the State Board of Education votes on it. That vote is tentatively set for July 18.

— Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily Mahoney contributed.

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