Florida offers tuition fee waiver to private schools to bullied students

FLORIDA, long considered a pioneer in adopting myriad school choice programs, has earned another mark of distinction: It has become the first state to make private school vouchers available to students who are bullied, regardless of income, usnews.com

Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Sunday signed a sweeping education bill that, among many other things, would create a new voucher program for victims of bullying, harassment and other types of violence, offering them up to $6,800 a year to cover tuition at a private school. Under the law, they would also have the option of moving to a different public school.

"Every child in Florida should have the opportunity to get a great education at the school of their choice so they can achieve their dreams," Scott said Sunday upon signing the bill into law.

The Hope Scholarship Program, as it's named, is just the latest school choice policy embraced by the Sunshine State, which also offers private school vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credit scholarship programs for low-income students and students with disabilities. Currently about 150,000 students tap into those programs at an annual cost of about $1 billion.

According to some estimates, as many as 50,000 students are bullied in Florida schools each year. The new voucher program, estimated to cost about $41 million, could provide as many as 5,800 students with vouchers.

Supporters of the proposal said the program is simply the next natural step for a choice-friendly state to continue to provide more options for students.

"Thanks to these scholarships, thousands more parents now have the power to do what other parents do all the time, without controversy or negative headlines: Find the school that works best for their kid," wrote Ron Matus, the director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers some of the state's voucher programs, in an op-ed Sunday.

But opponents painted the move as the latest attack on public education – and one that would divert funds away from traditional public schools.

Critics also argued that the new option will do nothing to stop the problem of bullying and that, in fact, it could have the unintended consequence of stoking bullies into targeting students if they know there's a chance those students might enroll in a different school. Some even likened the policy to being paid off to leave a school system that's supposed to be a safe and welcoming environment where all students can learn.

"Debates on vouchers and school choice aside, bullying is a school climate issue, which isn't solved when the child leaves the school," Deborah Temkin, senior program area director for Child Trends, said in a statement. "Nor does placing a student in a new school guarantee they will get the support they need to heal from their experience."

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