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A Voucher Program to Curb Bullying in FL Schools Could Expand — But it May Not be About Bullying

Students can get scholarships, or vouchers, for Catholic schools in Florida. (Creative Commons)

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A scholarship program originally intended to help students who are victims of bullying or other types of harassment could extend to students who haven’t faced any bullying at all.

What’s going on?

The Florida Legislature is considering legislation to expand a voucher program called the Hope Scholarship, which could potentially allow more students into the program. Those new students would qualify if they attend a school district that is in trouble with state education officials for non-compliance of state laws or a state board rules.

That means if a student is currently enrolled in a district public school that is being penalized by the State Board of Education, that student can apply for a Hope Scholarship and move to a private school, a different public school or a school in a different district.

This legislation, SB 506, is a continuation of Florida state policy being shaped as a response to an ongoing debate about mask requirements in schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County, and currently does not have a companion bill in the House.

“Especially with the outcry we’ve seen recently from parents being upset with school boards for various reasons — including, in some cases, where they (school boards) decided not to follow the law — and they’re increasingly frustrated. This provides those parents to have the option to make that decision for their student,” Diaz said at a Tuesday Senate Education committee meeting.

“This Legislature has spoken over and over again, clearly, that parents have the rights over their child,” Diaz continued. “And this allows them to make that decision in the case where they may feel hopeless because of the fact that the district has violated the law or rules and is not complying, giving them (parents) an option for them to take advantage for their students.”

Karen Mazolla, with the Florida Parent Teacher Association (PTA), opposed the bill, saying that the money funding scholarships could be used to improve the state’s public school system.

“Our system must be strengthened and continued to be governed by public officials, accountable to the public, and supported by public funding,” she told the Senate Education Committee during public testimony.

The bill passed 6 to 4, with Republican lawmakers in support and Democratic lawmakers in opposition.

Staff analysis of the legislation cited the recent conflict between the state education officials and local school boards, where eight school boards were financially penalized by the state, targeting the salaries of school boards for implementing strict mask policies.

The DeSantis administration has been adamant that parents, not school boards, have ultimate say in whether students where a mask in school, citing a Florida law called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” which says parents oversee and direct the healthcare of their child.

But some local school boards implemented strict mask mandates anyways, saying that they wanted to protect students and staff during a time where COVID cases were surging in Florida due to the delta variant of the virus.

The issue led to legal battles, federal involvement, and a special session that created laws explicitly forbidding school districts from mandating masks.

Now, all school districts are complying and none of Florida’s 67 school districts have a strict mask mandate in place, even as a newly-identified COVID variant called omicron looms.

The debate over who decides whether students wear masks in school, parents or elected school boards, has been going on for some time, and SB 506 is not the first time a state officials stretched the function of the Hope scholarship to accommodate parents who disagree with how districts handled COVID.

In early August, the Florida Department of Education created an emergency rule that allowed parents to use the Hope scholarship for so-called “COVID harassment.”

The emergency rule defined COVID harassment as: “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school district protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirements, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits…”

That was a change from was going on in the past regarding the Hope Scholarships in Florida. Those taxpayer-funded scholarships are for students who have experienced bullying, harassment, assault, or were hurt in other ways.

Since the state board approved the emergency rule, families have been applying for Hope Scholarships for COVID harassment and successfully transferring to different schools moving schools, according to Scott Kent, a communication staffer for Step Up for Students, which oversees Florida’s state scholarship programs.

Kent told the Phoenix over email that there have been 349 applications for the Hope Scholarship citing COVID harassments, and 65 of those students have transferred to another school because of COVID harassment.

Step Up for Students waived in support of SB 506 during the Tuesday Senate committee meeting.

This article originally appeared in Florida Phoenix

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