A bill to give scholarships to Florida students being bullied is weaving its way through the Florida Capitol, passing through the Florida Senate Education Committee Monday afternoon.
SB 1172, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would establish a scholarship for students in grades K-12 who are victims of bullying in Florida. Dubbed the “Hope Scholarship,” the new program would give funding to Florida students reporting incidents of violence, allowing them to transfer to public or private schools.
The scholarship derives its name from the controversial, $140 million “Schools of Hope” legislation which passed last summer and allowed for the expansion of charter schools in Florida.
Students who report bullying, hazing, battery or other forms of harassment would qualify for the scholarship, which would allow them to transfer to a different public or private school following their complaint.
According to the bill, scholarships cannot be paid out if a student is enrolled in a public school, virtual school or is receiving any other type of scholarship.
To further vet bullying claims, Galvano proposed an amendment requiring principals to investigate incidents of bullying or violence before students qualify for the scholarship.
Committee members expressed some reservations about how, exactly, lawmakers define “bullying,” while questioning where the funding for the Hope Scholarship program would come from.
“I am concerned about the over breadth of the definition,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, agreed with Farmer, saying he believed the term “bullying” was widely used and encouraged legislators to narrow down the definition to avoid an oversaturation of scholarships for incidents which aren’t actually “bullying” after all.
“The devil is always going to be in the details and I would encourage us to focus hard on the definition of what qualifies [as bullying] in this program,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
But Lee also conceded he believed many situations some might call “bullying” just happen to be part of everyday life.
“Heck, I’m bullied up here [in Tallahassee] every week,” Lee said. “I don't know what you call this stuff...but this is part of life, to some extent.”
Opponents of the measure have further questioned the motives of the scholarship program, viewing it as an attempt to expand the state’s voucher program.
“Frankly we are not falling for this one,” said Marie-Claire Leman of Common Ground Florida, a coalition of various education groups statewide. “It’s not about bullying, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to expand funding for private vouchers.”
The Senate version of the bill now heads to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre K-12 Education.