When Leidiana Candelario moved from the Dominican Republic to Miami in the third grade, her halting English made her a target for the school bullies.
“I felt that I had so many dreams in my heart, but I was being pained by the negative comments,” she said. “It just disrupted my dreams and everything I wanted to accomplish.”
The following year, Leidiana transferred to La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana with the aid of a state-approved scholarship program that helps low-income students pay private school tuition. The school was a perfect fit, said the now 17-year-old high school senior, and she was able to regain her confidence.
Now a group of Florida legislators wants to create a program to help any student who has been bullied or assaulted transfer to a private school, regardless of their family’s income.
Under the proposal, dubbed the Hope Scholarship Program, bullied students could apply for $6,200 to $7,000 to help cover private school tuition. The amount would depend on the child’s grade level. If a bullied student wants to stay in the public school system but transfer to a different school, he or she would be eligible for up to $750 to help cover transportation costs.
The bill also calls on the Florida Department of Education to scrutinize the policies at public schools where 10 or more incidents of bullying or violence have been reported to help determine how the school’s climate could be improved.
We all know if you experienced a trauma at a particular place, a reasonable adult wouldn’t return to that place unless they were sure by words and by deeds and by actions that it was now safe again.
Rep. Byron Donalds
“We all know if you experienced a trauma at a particular place, a reasonable adult wouldn’t return to that place unless they were sure by words and by deeds and by actions that it was now safe again,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who is sponsoring the legislation. “I can only imagine what it would be like for a child.”
During the 2015-16 school year, more than 47,000 Florida public school students reported incidents of bullying and violence, including fights, threats and hazing, according to state data.
Joseph Jimenez, the owner of Trinity Christian Academy in Hialeah, said that many of the students who come to his school with the aid of tax credit scholarships do so because they were bullied at a public school.
“The number two thing besides the academics is the social bullying,” he said. “We hear it all the time.”
But in a state that has long been at the forefront of the controversial school choice movement — which embraces voucher programs and publicly funded, privately managed charter schools — critics worry that the proposal would further drain the public school system of resources.
Florida’s traditional public schools already compete for funds. More than 280,000 students currently attend charter schools — a number that has been growing rapidly over the past decade.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed a controversial charter-school-friendly law that will force districts to share with charter schools millions of local tax dollars earmarked for school construction. In October, 13 local school boards filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new law. The Miami-Dade School Board has not joined the lawsuit, but estimates that the school district will lose $250 million to charter schools over the next five years.
100,000 The number of Florida students receiving tax credit scholarships
Critics say the Hope Scholarship proposal would further hollow out the state’s traditional public schools.
“I would hope that this Legislature will put forward serious policies to punish those guilty of bullying their peers, while also providing support services to those who have undergone trauma,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz in an email. “Instead, this bully voucher bill is just another step towards the GOP’s ultimate goal of privatizing public education in the state of Florida.”
The initiative, which House Speaker Richard Corcoran first announced in October, would be funded like Florida’s existing tax credit scholarship program, a voucher-like program that provides over $550 million in scholarships to more than 100,000 low-income students.
Businesses who donate to the current program get dollar-for-dollar tax credits. The money goes directly to designated scholarship organizations so that it doesn’t pass through state coffers as taxpayer dollars.
Instead of offering tax breaks to businesses, the new initiative would give tax credits to Florida residents who donate to the Hope Scholarship program. When a Florida resident buys a new or used car, he or she would have the option of donating $20 to the program in exchange for a $20 motor vehicle tax break.
A House of Representatives staff analysis estimates that if half of the Florida residents who buy cars and light trucks contribute to the program, it could divert between $34 million to $40 million a year that would have gone into the state’s general revenue fund, which pays for public services like education and healthcare.
“They basically ask Florida taxpayers to fund two separate school districts: one public and one private,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the nonprofit legal advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center. “And unfortunately we can’t afford to fund two separate school districts.”
Frankly, it’s a ridiculous concept that the child being bullied should be forced to leave their neighborhood school while their bully will be free to continue to harass other students.
House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz
Money isn’t the only issue. Critics also argue that moving victims to a private school won’t address the root problem. They say the money would be better spent bolstering anti-bullying programs in public schools.
“This bill will not do anything to combat bullying in our schools,” Cruz said. “Frankly, it’s a ridiculous concept that the child being bullied should be forced to leave their neighborhood school while their bully will be free to continue to harass other students.”
McCoy added that for a bullied child, transferring to a private school could actually end up creating more problems, since students at private schools don’t have the same legal protections as those in the public system.
“Instead of funneling billions of public dollars into private schools, Florida should invest in evidence-based strategies and tools proven to foster an anti-bullying climate in its public schools,” he said in a statement. “It is a far better way to ensure that the state’s public schools are safe, healthy, and welcoming places for all of Florida’s children.”
There are also questions about the oversight of private schools that enroll tax credit scholarship students. A recent Orlando Sentinel investigation found that some of the private schools have hired teachers without college degrees and staff with criminal convictions as well as exposing students to other potential dangers.
But Donalds doesn’t see the program as a threat — to students or to the state’s public schools. He said he wants families to be able to make the best decisions for their children, whether that’s a public or private school.
“The real conversation is are we about funding the education of children or are we about funding education bureaucracy? I want to fund the education of kids,” he said.
While legislators disagree about whether tax credit scholarships are the best way to help bullied students, one thing is certain: In Florida, the bill is likely to spark yet another bitter fight between school choice proponents and advocates of traditional public schools.