Editorial: Anti-bullying bill is smokescreen for expanding vouchers

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee.  FOR FILE.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee. FOR FILE.
Published Nov. 25, 2017

It sounds good on its face: Give kids in public schools who are being bullied scholarships to transfer to private schools. But as a matter of education policy, this is a myopic idea that does nothing to address structural problems that allow bullying to persist. Nevertheless, it's one of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran's top priorities next year. Why? Because it creates a vehicle to further expand Florida's voucher programs — to the detriment, as usual, of public schools.

The legislation, HB 1, filed by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, would require school districts to investigate incidents of bullying and inform parents of bullied children that their kids are eligible to change schools. The new "Hope Scholarships" would provide $750 to pay for busing to another public school, or a scholarship of about $7,000 to help offset tuition at a private school. The bill is rife with unanswered questions, such as how school districts are supposed to accommodate these individual busing needs. Or how a student who has been bullied would be better off in a private school where there is less state scrutiny and even less accountability. Or why it makes sense to deal with bullying by moving the victims and allowing the aggressors to stay.

Supporters say the bill would ensure that parents know their options. It spells out a time line for investigating incidents and notifying parents. But Florida law already requires school districts to have detailed policies for dealing with bullying, defining what it is, having a procedure for investigating incidents, referring victims and perpetrators for follow-up services and informing parents. The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, passed unanimously in 2008 in response to the suicide of a teen who had been bullied for years, even ties school districts' funding to compliance. But that law doesn't apply to private schools, meaning a bullying victim who has transferred out of his or her public school could potentially be left more vulnerable.

Simply enforcing existing law or strengthening it would forthrightly deal with bullying, but that isn't this legislation's real objective: expanding vouchers. HB 1 creates a whole new funding mechanism for vouchers, allowing people who are purchasing a vehicle in Florida to voluntarily contribute $20 to the scholarship fund that they would get back in the form of a sales tax credit. Scholarships would be available only until the money runs out. This is not intelligent policy. It's crowd-funding education on a first-come, first-served basis.

Donalds, the bill sponsor, is building quite a track record of terrible proposals. He was behind a bill in this year's legislative session to allow two members of elected boards to discuss public business in private. Thankfully, that didn't pass. But his push to allow challenges to public school educational materials for any reason did become law. So now someone who finds Renaissance art too risque can force a school district to hire a hearing officer to determine if the complaint is valid. Donalds' wife, Erika, is a member of the school board in Collier County and was appointed to the powerful Constitution Revision Commission by Corcoran. Her primary contribution on the commission so far is a proposal to allow public money to fund private or religious schools. At least that is a straightforward, frontal assault on public schools that can be contested directly rather than this smokescreen of combating bullying to expand vouchers.

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To seriously address bullying, state leaders should start with a commitment to making all schools safe. This legislation could have the opposite effect: removing victims of bullying from public schools while leaving the bullies behind. That is the fallacy of vouchers — they ignore structural problems. Donalds' bill is just a means of expanding that system, draining more money from public schools and funneling the dollars to private institutions that are not answerable to taxpayers.