Lawmakers pitch voucher-like program to help bullied, abused students change schools

House Republicans announced the general concept for the “Hope Scholarship” on Wednesday. Many specifics of the proposal

Children in Florida’s K-12 public schools who have been victimized by bullying, assault or other violent trauma will have a new option to change schools — including an incentive to leave the public school system for a private alternative — under an initiative announced Wednesday by House Republicans.

House leaders won’t have specific legislation available for at least another month for the school choice program they’re proposing as a “Hope Scholarship,” but their announcement sets the stage for a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the 2018 session.

Many of the details are still being ironed out — including how much tax money would be diverted to fund the program, which Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says he envisions “would be funded very similarly to the [Florida] Tax Credit Scholarship.”

We know from all of the studies that, if you’re fearful of stepping on to a school campus, if you’re worried for your own safety — you will not learn.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes

The tax credit scholarship is a controversial, voucher-like program that traditional public school advocates argue takes taxpayer money away from public education.

Businesses get a tax break in exchange for funding scholarships that help 100,000 poor — and often minority — children afford a private school education. The money is funneled directly through designated “scholarship organizations,” so it never passes through the state’s hands as “taxpayer” money.

Citing data from the Florida Department of Education, House Republicans said more than 47,000 incidents of violence were reported in the 2015-16 school year involving children in the K-12 public school system — acts that included hazing, fighting, threats and bullying.

“We know from all of the studies that, if you’re fearful of stepping on to a school campus, if you’re worried for your own safety — you will not learn,” Corcoran said, when he announced the proposal during a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol flanked by six of his top lieutenants in charge of education policy and funding.

Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who will be spearheading the legislation, said parents would simply have to report an incident of abuse to the school, and administrators would investigate it, as happens now. After 15 days, if the parents wanted to, they could then transfer their child to either a public school in the same county school district or to “a private school of their choice” using the financial aid from the Hope Scholarship.

“What this is going to provide them is to have that break from a very traumatic experience and to be able to continue their learning in a new environment with a fresh start,” Donalds said. “We think it’s in the best interest of all young people, of all students to be able to have the ability to do their very best.”

However, lawmakers at this time propose nothing to help teachers and administrators better address the root of the problem: Stopping or deterring those causing the abuse.

“Can school policy stop bullying from happening? Frankly, the answer is ‘no,’ ” Donalds said. “We have laws on the books for a myriad of things, but those happen still.”

Corcoran said schools “have a mechanism for discipline” for the students causing the abuse, and he encouraged superintendents to provide input on how that could be improved.

But when pressed by reporters on what lawmakers themselves would do to address the problem, Corcoran remarked: “You’re asking me how are we going to get badness out of the world. That’s a great question; that’s a beautiful philosophical question that we wrestle with every day, on every level… It’s not doable.”

Of the 47,440 incidents reported in public schools statewide in the 2015-16 school year, more than 32,000 — 68 percent — were classified as “fighting” or a “physical attack.” Acts of “threat/intimidation” accounted for 4,300 incidents, about 9 percent.

Among those statewide incidents, 4,254 — or 9 percent — happened in Broward County Schools, while 1,115 — or 2.4 percent — happened in Miami-Dade County, FLDOE data provided by Corcoran’s office show. Palm Beach County Schools had 2,942 incidents reported, about 6.2 percent of those statewide; Monroe County had only 29 incidents.

Signaling how much of a priority this proposal will be in the 2018 session, Corcoran’s office had promotional materials ready to go soon after the announcement late Wednesday morning — including images for lawmakers to share on Twitter and a 2-minute animated video posted to YouTube that advertises the concept.

But it’s unclear yet how well this idea will be embraced.

Corcoran is at odds with many traditional public school advocates, especially after pushing through sweeping education reforms at the end of the 2017 session that heavily benefited charter schools.

House members said they haven’t yet broached the “Hope Scholarship” idea with key stakeholders — such as locally elected school boards or the Florida Department of Education.

It’s unknown whether Senate leaders were looped in, either, prior to Wednesday’s announcement.

In a statement, though, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, emphasized his commitment to expanding school choice and said he was open to considering the House’s proposal.

“I take every priority of Speaker Corcoran very seriously and look forward to reviewing the legislation in more detail when it is available in the coming weeks,” Negron said. “Violence in our schools is a serious issue and the consequences can impact both the perpetrators and the victims for the rest of their lives, so I welcome the opportunity to explore this issue in more depth during the coming session.”

Corcoran quickly rejected any possibility of a constitutional challenge against the scholarship program, emphasizing the money “never comes into state coffers” — akin to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

The workaround of giving tax credits to businesses so that the businesses technically fund the scholarship — rather than lawmakers directly doing so through an allocation in the state budget — was used by lawmakers to avoid infringing on a landmark Florida Supreme Court decision known as Bush v. Holmes.

The Holmes ruling deemed private school vouchers to be a violation of the Florida Constitution’s mandate that the state provide a “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”(The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, sought to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarships, but the Florida Supreme Court tossed their lawsuit in January, finding the union didn’t have standing to sue.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095,, @ByKristenMClark

Reported incidents of violence in Florida schools

According to the Florida Department of Education, 47,440 incidents of violence were reported in Florida’s 4,200 public schools during the 2015-16 school year.

▪ Battery: 2,516

▪ Bullying: 2,867

▪ Fighting: 21,957

▪ Harassment: 1,832

▪ Hazing: 6

▪ Physical attack: 10,342

▪ Robbery: 167

▪ Sexual assault: 25

▪ Sexual battery: 28

▪ Sexual harassment: 1,805

▪ Sex offenses: 1,581

▪ Threat/intimidation: 4,314

TOTAL: 47,440

Source: House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s office

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