While Florida lawmakers approved funding for the so-called Hope Scholarship program as part of the House budget proposal, bills creating the program are still making their way through the committee process.
A bill that would provide students with a voucher-like scholarship if they are victims of bullying has been the subject of significant debate.
The Hope Scholarship would be funded through tax revenue generated from motor vehicle sales. And motorists would have the option to donate part of the sales tax to the scholarship in exchange for a tax credit.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), sponsor of the bill, says it’s about more than just bullying.
“This is a bill to help the victims of ours state, to escape their schools if they cannot function anymore," says Donalds.
Proponents of the measure argue this it’s necessary to get students out of dangerous settings. Leon county parent Danielle Shackleford says she saw the need for this program firsthand when her daughter faced bullying at school.
“My daughter was a victim of bullying and we had to wait until the next year for me to apply for her to become a Step it Up student," says Shackleford. "So the fact that this option is now on the table is such a blessing.”
The program, a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, has met sizable opposition, namely from Democrats and teachers unions. They worry expanding taxpayer dollars for private schools won’t address bullying and will hurt public schools.
“It does not guarantee that we’re going to deal with the problem with ‘how do we stop the bullying?" says Rep. Bruce Antone (D-Orlando). "It does not guarantee that the recipient of a Hope Scholarship will get a quality education.”
Southern Poverty Law Center’s Scott McCoy echoes similar objections.
“By convincing their parents that they should go to the private school, you’re actually depriving those bullied kids of many of the federal and state protections against bullying and harassment because none of those laws apply in the private school setting,” argues McCoy.
The Pre-K through 12 Appropriations subcommittee approved the Senate companion bill Thursday. It has one more stop in the Appropriations Committee before it moves to the Senate floor for a vote.
A similar measure in the House is heading for that chamber’s floor.