Florida, a leader in school choice, is addressing the bullying epidemic in the Sunshine State’s public schools by allowing parents to transfer their children to safer schools.
Evidence shows bullying is the number-one disciplinary problem in public schools, with more than six million kids affected annually. Furthermore, federal statistics indicate approximately 945,000 of bullied students likely missed school at least once in the past month because they were too afraid to attend.
In 2018, Florida implemented the Hope Scholarship program, which provides financial assistance to families of children who have been bullied so they can transfer to safer schools. When it was passed, the Hope Scholarship program was the first of its kind nationally. In 2019, Colorado and Kansas are considering similar programs, in the form of Child Safety Accounts.
Under the Hope program, parents can transfer their child to another public school or apply for a scholarship to an eligible private school if their child has been bullied or physically attacked in public school. The state funds the scholarships through voluntary contributions from automobile purchases.
Some school choice opponents claim the Hope Scholarship program is an invitation to rip off taxpayers for an extra school subsidy. However, the scholarship’s current maximum value of $7,111 is less than 78 percent of the amount spent per public school student. In other words, the subsidy would be greater if the bullied student stayed in the public school, not the other way around.
Although the Hope Scholarship only has about 125 recipients so far, the public education establishment is already searching for ways to stifle the program. Public school officials contend the state doesn’t properly verify bullying complaints before allowing parents to apply for the scholarship.
After local school districts called for a substantiation process, the Florida Education Department issued a memo that directed local school districts to back off and follow the law.
Although it might seem as if school district officials have a point, consider this: Bureaucrats protect their turf. They don’t like anything that challenges or disrupts the systemic status quo. In contrast, most parents protect their children. They want them to be safe and to have the opportunity to learn in a safe school.
Furthermore, school districts’ rigorous red tape is a well-documented killer of education innovation. Among the few positive qualities of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was its attempt to provide tutoring services and public-school options for students stuck in chronically lousy schools. However, many districts (Chicago among them) failed to inform parents of these opportunities in a timely manner, thereby safeguarding the status quo. NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA), is even worse.
Under the Unsafe School Choice Option, ESSA permits students to transfer to public schools considered safer. However, families can only do so after state bureaucrats have designated their school “persistently dangerous.” Because that process can take years, only about 50 of 100,000 government schools receive that label each year.
Endangered children don’t have years to wait for their parents to be able to place them in safe learning environments. They need real choice, and they need it now.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org)is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.