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Florida Board of Education adopts rules on scholarships for bullied students

Satisfied the program has safeguards in place to prevent fraud, the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday adopted a rule governing the state's new tax-credit scholarship for students who claim they have been bullied in public school.

In crafting what they called the "Hope Scholarship," lawmakers did not include wording to require the bullying complaints be verified — something the Senate requested but relented on.

The absence of such criteria prompted many critics, including some school district officials, to question whether families could game the system. They raised such concerns during a rule-making workshop in June.

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

State Board member Tom Grady focused on that issue during debate on the measure.

"What's to prevent someone who'd just like to have a scholarship … from simply claiming they're a victim?" asked Grady, who attended the meeting via phone. "What is there to prevent that fraud from happening?"

Adam Miller, executive director of the state Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, said that concern was not directly addressed in the rule, which he noted is limited in scope because the model does not depend on funding directly from the state budget. Rather, the money comes from voluntary contributions of sales taxes on vehicle purchases, through a scholarship funding organization.

Beyond that, Miller said, the law is "very clear" on how a student can become eligible for the scholarship.

"That is by reporting an incident of violence or bullying," he explained.

There is, however, a part of the law that requires an evaluation of any school that has 10 or more students requesting to leave using this program, Miller continued.

"Some of that [fraud] could come to light through that evaluation process," he said.

Grady pushed a bit more, asking why the rule did not include more detail on the list of offenses that would lead to a scholarship. Miller answered that those incident types already appear in the state rule on school violence reporting.

Chairwoman Marva Johnson said the issue weighed on her mind, as well, and she found it helpful to get Miller's explanation of why the rule looks as it does. She called for a vote, and the board unanimously backed the rule.

Money has not yet been collected for the scholarships, and they are not expected to be available until late fall, at the earliest.

The board also adopted a new rule governing reading scholarships, another program created by the Legislature in the spring for third graders who do not pass the state language arts test.

Related: New Florida scholarship aims to boost third-grade readers