Anti-Bullying-The Orlando Times
New Anti-Bullying Approach Introduced In Florida
BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Florida legislators are attempting a new approach to combat bullying in Florida’s schools.
The Florida House passed an education bill last Thursday with a provision sponsored by a Naples based legislator that would permit public school students who say they were bullied to use tax dollars to pay for private school.
The House voted 66-43 in favor of the 200-page bill (HB 7055), which contains other measures. A state-funded private school voucher averaging $6,800 a year expressly for children who say they’ve been bullied, regardless of income, will be allowed to attend private school.
Religious and secular private schools are eligible.
Titled, “The Hope Scholarships”, these provisions are the first such in the sunshine state, and in the nation.
Rep. Byron Donalds, the lead sponsor, said supporters don’t want to exclude any bullied children. The 2016 national study found 1 in 5 students ages 12 to 18 were bullied the previous year.
He believes parents will seek vouchers only after a string of serious incidents. Donalds’ wife Erika Donalds, serves on the Collier County School Board.
The House adopted an unprecedented budget tie-in that would make the bulk of next year’s per student public school funding contingent on the passage of the education bill.
The bill also includes a voucher for struggling elementary students to receive private tutoring and would place restrictions on teachers’ unions.
“The scholarship would be financed through auto sales. Buyers would be asked whether they want to contribute part of the sales tax to anti-bullying efforts. If the buyer agrees, $105 from the purchase would go toward the program.” Donalds said.
The bill does not at this time specify how the program would be described to buyers.
"(The bill is about) giving them a pathway so if the parent decides they actually want to do something different, they have the means and the ability to do so," Donalds said.
Other proponents argued the bill could heighten schools’ responses to bullying and create healthy competition among public schools.
Critics say the measure is loosely written, and a child teased or jostled once in elementary school could get an annual voucher through high school.
Florida public schools reported 47,000 bullying incidents last year, but with 3 million students statewide, that is likely a large undercount.
The vouchers would cover all or most of the tuition at many religious elementary schools, but many secular private schools and religious high schools charge $12,000 a year or more.
Joanne McCall, President of the Florida Education Association, remains critical of the measure.
“If legislators want to stop bullying they should fully fund existing programs such as peer-to-peer intervention, where students are taught to speak up when witnessing abuse.” She said. “If you really want to get to the heart of bullying then we have to do things that prevent bullying. “We know there are programs out there that work.”
McCall says it’s impossible to know how much bullying occurs in the state’s private schools because the Legislature doesn’t require them to report.
The 2016 national report says 21 percent of public school students surveyed were bullied, compared to 19 percent of Catholic school students and 20 percent of students who attend schools affiliated with other religions and Christian denominations. The report says the number of students surveyed who attend secular private schools was too small to measure.
The union compared the bill to last year’s HB 7069, which the union contended also rolled multiple education bills into one and undermined public education. That bill required public school districts to share funding with charter schools.
Participating private schools will not be required to disclose prior bullying incidents to the Florida Department of Education.
Rep. Bruce Antone, who represents Florida’s District 46 within the state house, calls the bill “false advertising” and says the bill, “places a band aid on the issue and does not guarantee these bullied children protection.”
“It gives more money to private entities all the while attempting to curve a very present issue.”