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Pasco schools want to verify bullying claims before offering state scholarship

State law does not require students to prove their allegations.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, announced a new “Hope Scholarship” proposal in 2017 to help public schoolchildren who are victims of bullying, assault or other trauma to attend a different school of their choice. Joining Corcoran were his top lieutenants on education policy and spending, from left: Republican Reps. Jake Raburn of Lithia, Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Michael Bileca of Miami, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Byron Donalds of Naples. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, announced a new “Hope Scholarship” proposal in 2017 to help public schoolchildren who are victims of bullying, assault or other trauma to attend a different school of their choice. Joining Corcoran were his top lieutenants on education policy and spending, from left: Republican Reps. Jake Raburn of Lithia, Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Michael Bileca of Miami, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Byron Donalds of Naples. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]
Published Feb. 26, 2019

The Pasco County school district’s proposed new policy to implement Florida’s “Hope” scholarship appears to run afoul of lawmakers’ intent.

During the 2018 legislative session, the state House of Representatives insisted that any student who claims to have been bullied in public school should be offered a scholarship out of the school — regardless of proof.

But Pasco district officials say a substantiated allegation is part of the definition of bullying. So they have put forth a policy recommendation that would offer the scholarship only “upon conclusion of the investigation and a finding that the student was subjected to any of the incidents” listed in the law creating the program.

Their position has been raised frequently throughout the establishment of this scholarship, which is funded by a sales tax credit from automobile purchases — but so far not upheld.

First, the state Senate pressed to amend the measure so it would require verification. The House resisted that push, and the Senate gave in.

Next, district officials pressed the Department of Education during rule making hearings to clarify when the scholarships would be offered. The department reiterated that the law, as written, asked only for a complaint.

Before adopting the rule, State Board of Education members again questioned the rationale of not requesting proof of bullying or harassment. Nothing stood in the way of someone making a fraudulent allegation simply to receive a private school scholarship, board member Tom Grady observed.

Staff repeated that the law was clear. The board unanimously approved the rule.

Since then, districts have tried to come to grips with the language. Alachua County district officials recently debated the issue, according to WUFT, with some expressing worries that the manner in which “Hope” scholarships were set up, it could speed efforts to privatize public education.

Critics have contended that the “Hope” scholarship falls in line with a lengthy effort to have state-supported private schooling — and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent call for using tax revenue to eliminate the waiting list for tax-credit scholarships has done little to dissuade them.

Pasco School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he planned to take a closer look at the policy headed to the board, to determine whether the district can skip offering a “Hope” scholarship until it gets a finding that bullying did occur.

So far, scholarship funding organization Step Up for Students reports having received 212 completed applications for the program, with 126 scholarships awarded. Ten of those went to Pasco County students.

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