School choice proposal for bullying, violence victims stirs passions

Travis Pillow

Evelyn Rivera was first in a long line of parents who addressed the House Education Committee on a proposed scholarship program for victims of bullying and violence.

Jacob Lebron is growing up with Aspergers Syndrome. In elementary school, his mother told a panel of state lawmakers, “he was different, so other kids called him weird.”

Then, in middle school, it got worse.

At another parent’s suggestion, his mother, Evelyn Rivera, applied for a Gardiner Scholarship*. She used the education savings account to pay his tuition at Temple Christian School in Titusville, Fla. There were no more bullies. New opportunities, like a chance to try out for the basketball team, opened up.

“It was such a turnaround,” Rivera said. “He’s made friends who accept him. He’s been involved in all their activities.”

Jacob himself asked lawmakers to support a new school choice program for children who are victims of bullying and violence.

“I want every student to have the same sense of acceptance as I do at my current school,” he said.

The Hope Scholarship* proposal continues to stir passions on both sides. The measure, HB 1, won approval this morning from the state House Education Committee. The House has merged a similar proposal into a wide-ranging piece of education legislation, HB 7055, which they are set to take up on the floor. A Senate panel is expected to take up its version of the proposal tomorrow.

Nancy Lawther of the Florida PTA asked House members to look at the Senate version. It would require more steps to show an incident has been “substantiated” before victims could transfer to another public school or receive a scholarship to a private school.

“This particular scholarship would set a precedent,” she added. It would be Florida’s first K-12 scholarship program with eligibility not based on income or limited to children with special needs.

Critics argued the state should send more resources to public schools to help them address bullying, violence and mental health, rather than create a new scholarship program. Hope Scholarships would be funded by tax-credited donations from car buyers who choose to support the program.

“We don’t need to send more dollars into private school coffers than we already are,” said Rick Reece of the Broward Teachers Union. “This bill is attempting to solve a problem that is already being solved in many public school districts.”

Parents who supported the legislation said the state’s existing policies haven’t always been enough.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” said Chikara Parks of St. Petersburg. She talked to teachers, spoke to principals, contacted the school district office and filed reports online. But the bullying of her children didn’t stop.

She said she spoke to some of the bullies herself, and heard nothing but “sad stories.” The bullies were sometimes victims themselves, in their own homes.

At the same time, Parks said, parents should have options, like the school she chose, Academy Prep Center. Kids will be kids, she said, but her new school doesn’t allow incidents to fester. “It’s nipped in the bud real quick,” she said.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples and sponsor of HB1 , revised the bill to include provisions increasing oversight of all the state’s private school choice programs.

He ticked through a list of anti-bullying bills that pre-dated his own time in the Legislature. The state has taken countless steps to address bullying in schools, he said, and could pass even more laws to that effect.

Donalds, however, said his goal was to give victims more options.

“This is a bill to help the victims of our state move to safer schools if they cannot function anymore,” he said.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps adminsiter the Gardiner Scholarship program. It would help administer the Hope Scholarship program if lawmakers create it.

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