FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida. – From the third to the fifth grade, Alyson Hochstedler says bullies drove her son into the lockers and punched him. One threatened to stab him. The public school administration did little to stop his tormentors, she says, so the mother of five transferred her son to the private school, with the help of a state grant for low and middle income earners to pay tuition fees.
The Florida Legislature is considering a proposal that the parents want Hochstedler a second, more controversial option, especially if they are not eligible for an income-based subsidy. That option is a government-funded private school voucher average $6,800 a year, expressly for children who say they are bullied, regardless of income.
The “Hope Scholarships” the nation’s first program. The grants will be funded by the car-buyers who voluntarily redirect $105 of their enrolment on the programme, on the basis of a bill by the Florida House. Religious and secular private schools would be eligible.
Hochstedler, a Tallahassee resident wishes such a program existed for her son, now 15 and thriving at a private school.
“When the conflict is not resolved for the safety and well-being of the child, with a different profession, such as the Hope Scholarship is just that … hope,” she said in an e-mail.
But opponents of whom the children have also been bullied say that it would do nothing to stop the problem. The state teachers union agrees, saying: it is part of an effort to weaken the public schools. A 2016 study of the National Center for Education Statistics found little difference in bullying between public and confessional schools.
Lea Ribando, the fourth grade daughter is suffering from migraine from the incessant insults that she and her friends received from a group of girls in their central Florida school. She said that the acceptance of a voucher would be like “I get paid to leave” and would let administrators off the hook.
“Bullying is not to blame — they are still there to bully other children,” she said.
Under the proposal, students would be eligible if their parents told administrators they had been bullied, abused, hazed, sexually abused or harassed, robbed, kidnapped, threatened, or intimidated at school. The assertion would not have to prove, under the House bill. The companion of the Senate bill would be the principal justification.
Critics say that the measure is loosely written, and a child is being bullied or repressed, once on the lower 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, which is likely a major undercount.
The vouchers would cover all or most of the education at many religious schools, but a lot of secular private schools and religious high schools charge $12,000 or more per year.
Supporters project 8 to 10 percent of the annual 4 million car buyers would redirect $105 — it costs nothing extra. That would divert $40 million, and annually fund about 5,800 vouchers. The state of the Republican-dominated government already has one of the nation’s largest voucher programs, with 150,000 low – and middle-income students and children with special needs or a disability receive tuition assistance at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion.
Rep. Byron Donalds, the main sponsor, said supporters don’t want to exclude bullied children. In 2016, the national study found 1 in 5 students ages 12 through 18 were bullied in the previous year.
He believes parents seek vouchers only after a series of serious incidents.
“Parents go through a very long and difficult process when they think about the removal of their child,” said Donalds, a Republican from southwest Florida. “What we are trying to do with these students, who are subject to these outrageous acts of violence or abuse is to give them a path to continue their education.”
The Florida Education Association, the teachers union, says the Republicans’ goal is to expand the voucher program and more money from the taxpayer into private hands. President Joanne McCall said that if the legislature wants to stop the bullying, they should fully fund existing programs, such as peer-to-peer intervention, where students are trained to speak as a witness of violence.
“If you really want to get to the heart of bullying, then we do things that prevent bullying,” McCall said. “We know there are programs that work there.”
McCall says it’s impossible to know how much bullying occurs in the condition of the private schools, because the Legislature does not require them to sign in. In 2016, the national report says 21 percent of the public school students surveyed were bullied, compared with 19 percent of the Catholic school, the students and 20 percent of the students who attend the schools affiliated with other religions and Christian churches. The report says that the number of surveyed students who attend secular private schools was too small to measure.
Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.