Florida bill would offer private school vouchers to bullied students

A proposed Florida bill would offer students who've been bullied a voucher for private school. Supporters of the bill say this program would offer students hope and a safe path to education, while opponents see the move as an attack on the public school system. 

Steve Cannon/AP/File
State Rep. Byron Donalds (R) of Naples (l.) talks with state Rep. Cord Byrd (R) in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 9, 2017. Representative Donalds is the lead sponsor of a bill that would provide funds to students who are being bullied to transfer to private schools.

From third to fifth grade, Alyson Hochstedler says bullies slammed her son into lockers and punched him. One threatened to stab him. The public school's administration did little to stop his tormentors, she says, so the mother of five transferred her son to private school, using a state grant for low- and middle-income families to pay his tuition.

The Florida Legislature is considering a proposal that would give parents like Ms. Hochstedler a second, more controversial option, especially if they aren't eligible for an income-based grant. That option is a state-funded private school voucher averaging $6,800 a year expressly for children who say they have been bullied, regardless of income.

The "Hope Scholarships" would be the nation's first such program. The grants would be funded by car buyers who voluntarily redirect $105 from their registration fee to the program, under a bill passed by the Florida House. Religious and secular private schools would be eligible.

Hochstedler, a Tallahassee, Fla., resident, wishes such a program had existed for her son, now 15 and thriving at a private school.

"When the conflict is not resolved for the safety and welfare of the child, having another recourse like the Hope Scholarship becomes just that ... hope," she said in an email.

But opponents whose children have also been bullied say it would do nothing to stop the problem. The state teachers union agrees, saying it is part of an effort to weaken public schools. A 2016 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed little difference in bullying between public and religious schools.

Leah Ribando's fourth-grade daughter suffers migraines from the relentless insults she and her friends receive from a group of girls at their central Florida school. She said accepting a voucher would seem like "I'm being paid off to leave" and would let administrators off the hook.

"The bully isn't being reprimanded – they will still be there to bully other kids," she said.

Under the proposal, students would be eligible if their parents told administrators they had been bullied, battered, harassed, hazed, sexually assaulted or harassed, robbed, kidnapped, threatened, or intimidated at school. The allegation wouldn't have to be proved, under the House bill. The companion Senate bill would require the principal's substantiation.

Critics say the measure is loosely written, and a child teased or jostled once in elementary school could get an annual voucher through high school.

Florida public schools reported 47,000 bullying incidents last year, but with 3 million students statewide, that is likely a large undercount.

The vouchers would cover all or most of the tuition at many religious elementary schools, but many secular private schools and religious high schools charge $12,000 a year or more.

Supporters project 8 to 10 percent of the state's annual 4 million car buyers would redirect $105 – it costs nothing extra. That would divert $40 million and annually fund about 5,800 vouchers. The state's Republican-controlled government already has one of the nation's largest voucher programs, with 150,000 low- and middle-income students and children with special needs or disabilities receiving tuition assistance at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion.

State Rep. Byron Donalds (R), the lead sponsor, said supporters don't want to exclude any bullied children. The 2016 national study found a fifth of students ages 12 to 18 were bullied the previous year.

He believes parents will seek vouchers only after a string of serious incidents.

"Parents go through a very long and painstaking process when they think about removing their child," said Representative Donalds. "What we are trying to do ... with these students who are subject to these outrageous acts of violence or abuse is to give them a path to continue their education."

The Florida Education Association, the teachers union, says the Republicans' goal is to expand the voucher program and get more taxpayer money into private hands. President Joanne McCall said if legislators want to stop bullying they should fully fund existing programs such as peer-to-peer intervention, where students are taught to speak up when witnessing abuse.

"If you really want to get to the heart of bullying then we have to do things that prevent bullying," Ms. McCall said. "We know there are programs out there that work."

McCall says it's impossible to know how much bullying occurs in the state's private schools because the Legislature doesn't require them to report. The 2016 national report says 21 percent of public school students surveyed were bullied, compared to 19 percent of Catholic school students and 20 percent of students who attend schools affiliated with other religions and Christian denominations. The report says the number of students surveyed who attend secular private schools was too small to measure.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Florida bill would offer private school vouchers to bullied students
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today