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Program That Gives Private School Vouchers to Bullied Students Off to Slow Start

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Among the Florida Board of Education’s most pressing 2019 priorities are implementing the state’s post-Parkland school safety plan, addressing Hurricane Michael’s impact on Panhandle school districts and dealing with a shortage of science, English and math teachers.

But at the Board’s meeting this week in Pensacola — the only meeting before the Legislature convenes on March 5 and its first with former House Speaker Richard Corcoran sitting as state Education Commissioner — a number of other issues were outlined in succinct presentations.

Among them: The status of the Hope Scholarship program approved by lawmakers last year.

Introduced as House Bill 1 by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, the Hope Scholarship program was approved during the 2018 session as a component of HB 7055, the 202-page, $25.8 billion omnibus education package.

The Hope Scholarship is a voucher offered to public-school students who are bullied or victims of violence to attend private schools. They are funded by car buyers who voluntarily direct up to $105 of their sales tax into the program.

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Supporters forecast the tax credit would generate as much as $46 million annually for Step Up For Students, the state-authorized nonprofit that administers the Hope Scholarship and other scholarship programs.

Since the program began on July 1, only 60 students have been approved for the scholarship, Step Up for Students Chief Financial Officer Joe Pfountz told the Board.

The general public is not yet aware of the scholarships, he said, noting snags in documentation and procedure have surfaced as the program is rolled out for the first time.

Corcoran said the tepid response is typical for a new program.

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“Every program, when it comes online, there’s always a slow ramp-up,” he said.

The term-limited representative, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who bowed out before the GOP primaries, was a key contributor last year in pushing the scholarship program through Democratic opposition and a hesitant Senate.

Corcoran said initial implementation has exposed some administrative issues with the program but that, too, is to be expected with a new program.

“It’s a laborious application process that needs to be fixed. I think the Legislature is going to go in and tweak the application process to streamline it,” he said.

Corcoran said it is unlikely that the number of scholarships issued will “come close” to using all the funds collected for Hope Scholarships in the first few years. He suggested remaining funds be directed to students on the waiting list for other scholarships administered through Step Up.

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The Board’s proposed $21.8 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request includes several proposed spending increases for programs established in last year’s $400 million Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, Senate Bill 7026, the Legislature’s quickly-assembled response to the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland.

They include:

  • $100 million more in “safe schools” funding, increasing the allocation to $262 million, to hire more law enforcement officers to protect school campuses.
  •  $51 million more for school “hardening” to increase the allocation to $150 million.
  • $10 million more for establishing or expanding school-based mental-health programs, for a total of $79 million.
  • $10 million to establish safety and mental-health programs for state colleges.

Board member Michael Olenick said the Legislature needs to increase the funding for both armed school security and increased mental health programs for students and grant districts greater “flexibility” with how they use the guardian program to arm school staff.

Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said meeting SB 7026’s requirement that every school have armed security at all times “remains a challenge” in many communities.

Escambia County’s sheriff’s office “can’t afford to give up 32 deputies to go to 32 elementary schools, as much as he would like to,” he said, and hiring private security is a fiscal burden for many districts.

Different strategies that could lower costs include creating a centralized training system for guardians across the state to ease local training burdens, Thomas said.

Next week, House and Senate education committees are scheduled to review a 407-page report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which spent months investigating the mass shooting and examining ways to implement SB 7026.

Among proposals submitted by the 14-member panel is to allow teachers with concealed carry permits to serve as campus guardians. Classroom teachers are now excluded from the program.

A version of this article appeared on the Watchdog.org website. 

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