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Scholarship Bill Seeks To Give Bullied Kids 'HOPE'

Some 47,000 Florida students are being bullied or have been in some sort of violent situation—be it school fights, or harassment. And a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran is getting those kids some help.  A proposal allowing those kids to transfer to other public and private schools is making its way through the legislature but critics say it’s not a solution to the problem.

In his opening day remarks, House Speaker Richard Corcoran introduced lawmakers to Gant Lee, who was bullied for three years Corcoran says the Lee’s mother Allison repeatedly complained to the school about the situation but the bullying didn’t stop. Instead, it grew worse.

“They started smashing his head against the lockers," Corcoran said. "Again they reported it and nothing was done. Finally, they punched him in the jaw, chocked him, and started threatening not only him, but his entire family.”

Eventually, Gant’s mother pulled him out of the school and enrolled in a private one through the state’s corporate tax scholarship program. But Corcoran says no child should have to endure such suffering:

“Allison and Gant," he said, speaking to the family sitting in the House gallery, "on behalf of my colleagues in 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.”

House Bill 1, by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, is Corcoran trying to keep his promise.

“This program allows students subjected to an incident at school or during a school-related activity who are subjected to battery, harassment, sexual assault, etc," Donalds told a House education committee Tuesday. "Students can transfer to another public school within the public school system or apply for a HOPE scholarship to attend a private school.”

If a family chooses the private option, the amount of money they receive would be determined by grade, with kids in kindergarten through fifth grade eligible for a  $6,517.83 scholarship, those in grades 6-8 would get $6,814.10, and grades 9-12 $7,110.36.

This is Corcoran’s so-called “HOPE Scholarship” program, which is not to be confused by the college scholarship in Georgia that goes by the same name. But critics say, while the intent is noble the execution is flawed. Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center says the bill doesn’t address the root problem—bullying itself:

“It pushes victims of bullying and harassment out of their schools with no guarantee another school will be safer. Second, it leaves most Florida children behind, and third, it funnels an enormous amount of taxpayer money into a troubled system with few safeguards," McCoy testified.

The Florida AFL-CIO’s Rich Templin says it seems the Republican-led legislature’s solution to any problem in education is a privatization and he says even his eight-year-old daughter saw a problem when he brought her to an earlier hearing on the measure:

“She looked at me at some point and asked too loudly, and probably rudely to the folks speaking, ‘I don’t understand. Why do the good kids have to leave their schools and the bullies stay behind? They’re the ones who did something wrong.”

Also lining up against the bill is the teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, which says the money for vouchers could be better used by hiring more counselors to address problems. And the group says of the 47,000 incidents of bullying that occur—many are one-time conflicts. Not the serious, systematic problems House Speaker Richard Corcoran is concerned about. And the bill sponsor, Representative Donalds, agrees with that.

But "if a parent is going to be so petty that they’re going to use a pencil being thrown at their child to grab a scholarship versus a parent whose child has been systematically harassed…that’s a problem that exists under any program that operates under government auspices.” 

Donalds says at the end of the day, it’s for parents to decide what’s best for their child.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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