Hope Scholarship, oversight legislation advance in Fla. Senate

Chikara Parks addresses the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

A Florida Senate panel approved measures that would increase oversight existing private school choice programs and create a new option for children who are victims of bullying and violence.

A parent helped rebut opponents of the Hope Scholarship* proposal. SB 1172 would create the new program, which would allow victims to transfer to other public schools or receive scholarships to attend private schools.

Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center told the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee that the concept relies on the “fallacy” that unlike public schools, “private schools are utopias” free of bullying.

But Chikara Parks, a mother of four from St. Petersburg, spoke after him. “I’m a big supporter of public schools,” she said. After all, two of her children attend them. The other two used an existing scholarship program to attend Academy Prep Center, a private school focused on disadvantaged children. Parks wanted to get them away from bullying problems that she couldn’t get school district officials to address.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said opponents of the plan have asked him why it allows victims to transfer, rather than addressing the bullies.

But Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and sponsor of the bill, said sometimes it’s hard to identify a single person responsible for bullying and harassment that, collectively, can make a child too afraid to function at school.

“We’re trying to capture that situation where someone fears the environment they’re going into, and then, in turn, is not educated, or worse,” he said.

The House is set to vote on its version of the proposal this afternoon in a sweeping piece of legislation, HB 7055. It also has advanced a separate, more narrow piece of legislation (HB 1) that would create Hope Scholarships and increase oversight of all the state’s private school choice programs.

So far, the Senate has kept its Hope Scholarship and oversight proposals separate. The oversight legislation, SB 1756, won approval from the same panel today. The Senate legislation is similar to the House’s proposal but would go further in several respects.

Private school representatives said they supported many of the changes but still had a few concerns. Robyn Rennick of the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools endorsed proposals to subject more schools to financial oversight and require more school visits by Department of Education staff.

But she said schools like hers, which cater to children with special needs, may need more flexibility to hire teachers who do not have bachelor’s degrees than the Senate’s proposal would allow.

Bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, pledged to keep working with private school groups on possible compromises.

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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