Group urges stronger rules for scholarships to assist bullied students

Lisa Buie

A conservative education group wants state education officials to penalize public school districts that fail to inform parents about the availability of a state scholarship for bullying victims.

Two members of Florida Citizens Alliance told Florida Board of Education members earlier today that rules governing the Hope Scholarship need to be tightened to ensure that districts inform parents they can apply for the scholarship when they report bullying.

“I think there needs to be some teeth in it,” said Keith Flaugh, a managing director of the Naples-based group during a workshop held via conference call to discuss the proposed changes. “The schools are … in many cases, hiding it because they lose funding if a parent takes advantage of it.”

Flaugh added that the state should audit school districts to ensure compliance and levy some type of punishment to those who disregard the rules.

At present, 429 Florida students are using a Hope Scholarship, the first of its kind in America, even though tens of thousands fall into the eligibility categories. State officials projected in 2018 that as many as 7,000 a year would the scholarship, which is worth about $7,000 a year.

To date, the best available evidence suggests a leading reason for the gap is that districts are not telling parents they have this option.

Seventy-one percent of Hope parents surveyed by the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University said they learned of the scholarship through other avenues, such as private schools, internet searches and social media. Two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that the bullying incidents they reported were investigated in a timely manner, and many expressed frustration with district officials who they said didn’t know the legal requirements.

The survey results prompted the Florida Department of Education to consider rule changes that would require that districts routinely tell the state how many Hope notification forms they have made available to parents.

Currently, there is no such requirement, even though districts are required by law to notify parents about the Hope Scholarship within 15 days of a reported bullying incident and to provide them the Hope form they need to start the application process.

(The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that hosts this blog.)

Rick Stevens, also a managing director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, stressed the need at today’s workshop for follow up to make sure that parents who receive the forms from the districts know how to take advantage of the scholarship opportunity.

“We need to have a way to support the parent, and I’m not sure assuming the districts will provide that is the right approach,” Stevens said, adding that he’s heard reports of parents who had trouble making the connection between receiving the paperwork and applying for the scholarship.

“There needs to be a way to coach them through the process,” he said.

Lawmakers created the Hope Scholarship in 2018, in an effort led by then House Speaker and now Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Students are eligible if they report being victims of bullying or similar incidents, including assault, battery, hazing, harassment, and sexual misconduct. They can use the scholarship to attend private schools or to transfer to another public school.

Hope Scholarships are funded by individuals who contribute up to $105 in return for sales tax credits on motor vehicle purchases. So far this year, citizens have contributed $60.8 million. By law, unused Hope funds can be used for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.

Laura Mazyck, deputy executive director of independent education and parental choice for the Florida Department of Education, told Flaugh and Stevens that their comments would be taken into consideration.

The rule changes are expected to be discussed at the next state Board of Education meeting July 15.

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