Fundraising began this week for a state-sanctioned scholarship program that helps victims of bullying and other mistreatment at school.
When the legislative session opened in January, House Speaker Richard Corcoran gave an impassioned speech about education.
“We will continue to fight and fight and fight to ensure that every single child – regardless of their race, their gender, their income, or their demographics – is afforded a world class education.”
When the applause faded, Corcoran told the story of 15-year-old Gant Lee. When he was in 3rd grade, Gant's parents separated and he moved to an A-rated school district. Bullies quickly found him.
“They started physically assaulting him. They kicked him. They kneed him. They even stabbed him with pencils. Gant and his mother Alyson reported it, and nothing was done,” Corcoran told the chamber. “Then, they started smashing his head against the lockers. Again they reported it; nothing was done. Finally, they punched him in the jaw, choked him, and started threatening not only him, but his entire family.”
The abuse lasted three years until Gant’s mom, Alyson Hochstedler, was able to get a voucher from the state’s tax credit scholarship program for him to attend a private school. Corcoran said Gant is now thriving. He introduced Gant and Alyson, who were watching the speech from the House gallery.
“Alyson, Gant, on behalf of my colleagues at the Florida House of Representatives, I promise you this: we will end this horror for all children. No one will ever, ever be trapped again.”
A House analysis found that in the 2015-16 school year, more than 47,000 Florida public school students reported incidents like bullying, physical attacks, and even sexual assault. This new program offers a chance for these students to receive funds to attend a participating private school or cover transportation costs to attend a public school in another district.
“What we really want is for these children to find a school where they are going to feel safe, where they’re not going to hate going to school anymore, and they're going to find that love of learning again,” says Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager for the nonprofit Step Up For Students. The organization handles this and other scholarship programs for the state, taking about three percent of the proceeds for administrative expenses.
Funding for the new program will come primarily from car buyers. “The way this one works is you are going to purchase an automobile; you owe taxes on that purchase. You can elect to donate up to $105, and the Department of Revenue will give you a tax credit for $105,” Gibbons says. “The dealerships and the tax collectors in each county will be collecting that money and sending it once per month to Step Up (For Students).”
Scholarships are awarded on a first come, first served basis. The amount available depends entirely on how much money is donated.
For a student to be considered for a scholarship, the abuse must be reported to school leaders. “The school principal has about 15 days to investigate the incident,” Gibbons says. “At the end of that 15 days, the principal comes back to the student and his or her parent and tells them these are our options for you.”
Private schools that participate in the Hope Scholarship program must pass inspections by the Department of Education and meet other regulatory requirements.
More than 220 private schools have signed up so far, and more than 17-hundred parents have put their names on an interest list.