Hope Scholarship, school choice oversight bills clear Fla. Senate panel

Travis Pillow

A Florida Senate panel advanced a proposal to create a new educational choice scholarship for victims of violence, harassment or bullying.

The sponsor, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, made changes to SB 1172 that would address some concerns opponents raised when the House advanced its Hope Scholarship legislation in November.

Public-school principals would have 30 days to investigate incident reports from parents. If the charges were “substantiated,” victims would become eligible for a scholarship to a private school*, or a transfer to a public school of their choice.

Still, some critics argued lawmakers should focus on toughening up the state’s existing anti-bullying policies, rather than create a new scholarship program.

“Wouldn’t removing the bully make the school safer for all students … as opposed to removing that individual who was bullied?” asked Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Galvano told the Senate Education Committee the goal is not to “remove” students who make trouble. That’s what discipline procedures are for. The bill “just provides an opportunity” for victims, he said.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation and an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual abuse, noted the scholarship portion of the bill creates “basically a relocation that we do for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.” At the same time, though, she said the state should look at alternatives like increasing “wraparound services” for victims.

She joined fellow Democrats who voted against the bill. It passed on a 6-4 party-line vote.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said that while he supported the concept, he worried about the definitions of incidents that would allow students to qualify for scholarships. “Heck, I’m bullied up here every week,” he said, referring to threats made to his legislative priorities.

Galvano, however, noted state law provides detailed definitions of bullying in schools. It’s important to address violent behavior, he said. At the same time, “you also want to empower the victim.”

The committee also approved a measure by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that would increase oversight of the state’s K-12 private school choice programs*.

Among other things, it would significantly raise the number of Department of Education site visits to private schools that accept scholarships, bar school leaders with a history of bankruptcy and require participating schools’ teachers in second grade or higher to have college degrees.

Simmons and other supporters of SB 1756 pointed to an Orlando Sentinel investigation that highlighted troubled schools receiving scholarships. A longtime supporter of private school choice, he said he believed most schools do not engage in the worst forms of abuse.

“I believe it’s a very small part of this program,” he said.

The House unveiled its scholarship oversight proposal last week.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer Florida’s tax credit and Gardiner Scholarship programs. It would also help administer the Hope Scholarship program if lawmakers create it.

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