The "Hope Scholarships" Rationale
A new Florida bill proposes to let bullied students escape the bullying by transferring out of public school and attending private school on a voucher. More specifically, the "Hope Scholarships," the first type of such grant in the country, would provide a state-funded private school voucher averaging $6,800 a year expressly for children who say they have been bullied, regardless of income.
Representative Byron Donalds, a Republican from Florida who is the bill's lead sponsor, summarized his rationale for the proposed legislation as follows:
"Parents go through a very long and painstaking process when they think about removing their child ...
"What we are trying to do is with these students who are subject to these outrageous acts of violence or abuse is to give them a path to continue their education."
Credit where credit is due: under the proposed legislation, both religious and secular private schools would be eligible for this program.
How the Program Would Be Paid For
Admittedly, and putting aside all of the issues inherent in this idea, my first question (and presumably, that of the Florida taxpayers as well) was this:
Even assuming this is a good idea, how would you plan to pay for it?
While I am skeptical that this would work, here is the bill sponsors' answer:
The grants would be funded by car buyers who voluntarily redirect $105 from their registration fee to the program, under a bill passed by the Florida House.
Opposition to the "Hope Scholarships" From Teachers' Groups
Predictably, teachers' unions oppose this legislation, claiming it is nothing more than an effort to weaken public schools. Candidly, they also raise some very strong arguments that highlight gaping holes in the proposed legislation, including the following:
- Will This Actually Curb Bullying? According to the teachers' union, this legislation will ultimately will probably do nothing to solve the problem of bullying - even for these bullied children - for a 2016 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed little difference in bullying between public and religious schools.
- With No Proof Required, How Can You Prevent Abuse of the System? Under the House's proposed legislation, students would be eligible to receive the Hope Scholarship if their parents merely inform the school they had been bullied, battered, harassed, hazed, sexually assaulted or harassed, robbed, kidnapped, threatened or intimidated at school; they don't need to actually prove any of these allegations.
While the Senate bill does require that the principal confirm the allegations before the transfer would be approved, that too raises questions of its own, such as "What if the principal unreasonably refuses to acknowledge the problem - despite clear evidence of bullying?"
As a threshold matter, you can't help but be encouraged that there are politicians willing to invest the time, effort and capital to try to tackle the problem of school bullying, and to assist students who've been repeatedly targeted to continue their studies in a healthier, safer environment.
To be sure, the study cited by the teachers' union doesn't necessarily establish their point; as many of us know from personal and anecdotal experience, getting a fresh start in a new environment can often prove successful.
In my view, there are huge, glaring holes in this proposed legislation, and the potential for abuse must be tackled before it has any chance of gaining serious traction, particularly in gatekeeping to make sure only qualified applicants are able to benefit from the vouchers.
Lastly, I think that the proposal to have this program funded by voluntary donations is wishful thinking at best, and simply won't work. A better proposal, in my view, would be to compel the school where the confirmed bullying occurred, to fund the transfer out of its own grant dollars. Naturally, that would raise several issues in its own right, but would incentivize the schools to make sure no bullying is found on their grounds.