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Florida lawmaker files another bill to expand private school scholarships

Sen. Manny Diaz would make it easier for students who claim they were bullied to get an award.

In an ongoing effort to grow Florida’s school choice programs, the powerful chairman of the state Senate Education Committee has proposed enlarging a 2018 scholarship for students who claim to be bullied in school. The bill is based, in part, on concerns and questions raised by Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who led the charge for this law last year when he was speaker of the Florida House.

The “Hope” scholarship, funded by a sales tax credit on automobile purchases, was established to allow children in district schools to attend different private or public schools if they had been abused or harassed. Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would allow private school students to be eligible for a scholarship, as well.

With SB 1410, Diaz also would take schools out of the decision making whether to provide scholarship information to students. It would have parents whose children were subjected to an incident listed in the law go directly to a scholarship funding organization for an application.

The family would simply have to report the incident. No verification is requested.

School districts have raised concerns that they are supposed to provide scholarship details to the families without having substantiated the allegation of bullying. The state House insisted in 2018 that the program not require proof that the bullying occurred.

As of this week, scholarship funding organization Step Up For Students reports that 212 families had completed applications for the “Hope” scholarship, with 126 being awarded. That’s not as large as lawmakers anticipated: They noted during their discussions on the measure that thousands of children could be eligible, based on school district incident reports.

Diaz said the he filed this bill as a “conversation piece” to start the debate again over the Hope Scholarships created last year, but said it’s a work in progress that will change based on research being done by Corcoran.

“When people see this, their antennae go up. I think it’s my job to put all these thing on the table, to have the conversation, to give the new commissioner — who happens to have been part of making the law — the chance to research and see if there’s anything to make it better," Diaz said.

If the demand does not meet the supply of available funding, Diaz would allow any unspent contributions in excess of 5 percent of the total to be carried forward to the following year, or to be used toward Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income students.

Diaz said he’s hoping Corcoran will find out why the enrollment has been so low so they can adjust accordingly, even if that means “collapsing” the Hope Scholarship and using the funds for other voucher-like programs because the bullying measure isn’t catching on with parents.

He also has said his committee will publish a bill in the first week of session that would provide state funds to eliminate the current waiting list for the Tax Credit Scholarships, another goal set forth by Gov. Ron DeSantis.