The Florida Board of Education next week is expected to approve a rule outlining how a new scholarship program for bullied students will work.
But while the Hope Scholarship program, approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year, begins with the new school year, there will not be any funds for the program until sometime after Oct. 1.
The delayed funding for the scholarships may lead to an uneven start for the program, which will allow students who are victims of bullying or other types of harassment to use the scholarships to attend private schools or to transfer to another public school.
A preliminary estimate by state analysts projects 7,302 Hope scholarships will be awarded in the 2018-19 school year, with some $27 million in funding. As dictated by the new law, the scholarships will be handed out on a “first-come, first-served” basis.
But the first key question is how much scholarship money will be available.
The program will be funded by voluntary contributions made by Floridians when they buy new or used vehicles. Beginning Oct. 1, motorists will be able shift up to $105 from the sales tax they would normally pay on the vehicle transactions to the Hope scholarship program.
However, state analysts and officials with Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that will handle the scholarship program, said the initial sales tax money may not be available until Nov. 20. That's because car dealers, like other businesses that collect the state sales tax, have 20 days to submit their prior month tax collections.
“We really have no idea,” said Ron Matus, a spokesman for Step Up For Students, referring to the number of Hope scholarships that could be awarded this school year. “This is a brand-new program. I don’t think anybody really knows what the demand is going to be.”
Matus said a variety of factors will have an impact on the start of the new scholarship program, including the amount of the voluntary tax donations as well as the number of students and their parents who want to use the scholarships.
The law identifies more than a dozen incidents, including bullying, harassment, fighting, assault, robbery and intimidation, which would make students eligible for the Hope scholarships.
Once an incident is reported to a school principal, the school district must notify the student’s parents within 15 days or upon the completion of the investigation, whichever occurs first, about the scholarship opportunity.
Those reports may start coming in next month, when Florida’s 2.8 million students in the kindergarten-through-high-school system return to their classrooms.
But Matus said, given the delay in the funding, it may be some time before Step Up For Students starts taking applications for the scholarships.
“We haven’t determined yet when we will start taking applications,” Matus said. “It probably won’t be for a few months when we get closer to that time when we can actually start raising money.”
However, he said his organization was already getting inquiries from parents about the program.
“We started keeping an interest list because we have had parents ask about it,” Matus said.
The scholarships, which are based on the statewide per-student funding level, would be worth more than $7,112 for high school students for a full year, $6,816 for middle school and $6,519 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
But since the funding is not expected to be available until Nov. 20 or later, state analysts project some 14 weeks of the new school year will be completed, leaving 22 weeks for the scholarships. The delay would reduce the amounts in the first year to $4,346 for the high school students, $4,165 for middle school and $3,984 for the elementary school students.
In addition to using the state-funded scholarships to attend a private school, the Hope program would also let students attend another public school, providing up to $750 in transportation costs. That amount would be reduced to $458 in the first year because of the delayed funding.
The state projects 6,858 Hope scholarships will be awarded in the 2019-20 academic year, which would be the first full year for the program, including more than $40 million in funding.