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Florida bill would let bullied students go to private school

AP  |  Fort Lauderdale 

From third to fifth grade, Hochstedler says bullies slammed her son into lockers and punched him. One threatened to him.

The public school's administration did little to stop his tormentors, she says, so the mother of five transferred her son to private school, using a state grant for low- and middle-income families to pay his tuition.

The Legislature is considering a proposal that would give parents like Hochstedler a second, more controversial option, especially if they aren't eligible for an income-based grant. That option is a state-funded private school voucher averaging $6,800 a year expressly for children who say they have been bullied, regardless of income.

The "Hope Scholarships" would be the nation's first such program. The grants would be funded by who voluntarily redirect $105 from their registration fee to the program, under a bill passed by the House. Religious and secular private schools would be eligible.

Hochstedler, a Tallahassee resident, wishes such a program had existed for her son, now 15 and thriving at a private school.

"When the conflict is not resolved for the safety and welfare of the child, having another recourse like the Hope Scholarship becomes just that ... hope," she said in an email.

But opponents whose children have also been bullied say it would do nothing to stop the problem. The state teachers union agrees, saying it is part of an effort to weaken public schools. A 2016 study by the National Center for Statistics showed little difference in bullying between public and religious schools.

Leah Ribando's fourth-grade daughter suffers migraines from the relentless insults she and her friends receive from a group of girls at their school. She said accepting a voucher would seem like "I'm being paid off to leave" and would let administrators off the hook.

"The bully isn't being reprimanded -- they will still be there to bully other kids," she said.

Under the proposal, students would be eligible if their parents told administrators they had been bullied, battered, harassed, hazed, sexually assaulted or harassed, robbed, kidnapped, threatened or intimidated at school.

The allegation wouldn't have to be proved, under the House bill. The companion bill would require the principal's substantiation.

Critics say the measure is loosely written, and a child teased or jostled once in 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.

Supporters project 8 to 10 per cent of the state's annual 4 million would redirect $105 -- it costs nothing extra. That would divert $40 million and annually fund about 5,800 vouchers.

The state's Republican-controlled 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 disabilities receiving tuition assistance at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, February 12 2018. 12:05 IST