School choice scholarship for bullying victims may get boost with reporting changes

Ron Matus

Florida education officials are considering changes that could lead to wider use of a school choice scholarship for bullying victims that has so far seen few takers despite tens of thousands of qualifying incidents each year.

The proposed rule changes to the Hope Scholarship, the first of its kind in America, would require that school districts routinely tell the state how many Hope notification forms they’ve given 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 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.)

The Florida Department of Education will consider the changes at a June 19 workshop.

Lawmakers created the Hope Scholarship in 2018, 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.

At present, 429 students are using Hope at private schools, even though tens of thousands fall into the eligibility categories and state officials projected in 2018 that as many as 7,000 a year would use them. The scholarships are 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 means, such as private schools, internet searches and social media. Two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that the incidents were investigated in a timely manner, and many expressed frustration with district officials who they said didn’t know the legal requirements or didn’t want to follow them.

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, they’ve contributed $60.8 million. By law, unused Hope funds can be used for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.

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