Fifteen days after their official launch, Florida's new tax credit scholarships for students who claim being bullied in public school have begun being offered.
Families that report any of 13 types of incidents, as outlined in law, are getting letters informing them that their children are eligible to receive funding to attend private schools that have signed up for the program, known as "Hope" scholarships.
The letters, a version of which was drafted by the state, provides for principals to confirm that an incident occurred and that parents were made aware of their options. The law is not written so that schools must verify the claims before offering the scholarships — a situation that state Board of Education members observed could lead to fraud.
The state does not receive any information after families get the scholarship letters, which schools are required to provide within 15 days after a report is filed.
Families must request scholarships, which are available on a first come-first served basis from a separate funding organization. That group will inform the state on a quarterly basis how many scholarships are awarded, along with other related details.
The Pasco County school district has reported distributing some scholarship eligibility letters, but did not have a count. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said that, at least anecdotally, several of the parents have told their schools they do not want to leave because someone else is bullying them — one of many concerns raised by critics of the program as it moved through the Legislature in the spring.
At least one Pasco parent told the district that the options for using the private school scholarship were very limited to them. Only five small schools in the county appeared on the state directory of those accepting the scholarships, and all but one were affiliated with religious institutions.
If a public school has 10 or more students that accept the scholarships, the state would review the climate and policies at that school.
Students also can use the program to receive a smaller amount toward transportation costs if they prefer to transfer to a different public school.