The Senate Education Committee passed several controversial bills Monday evening, including the Hope Scholarships bill (SB1172), which would grant money to students who are victims of bullying, assault, robbery and other types of violence to allow them to move to another public or private school.
The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and the House version passed through that chamber in the first week of session. The Senate bill has an added a provision that would have school administrators investigate whether bullying allegations are substantiated before the student would be offered the voucher.
The bill passed by a vote along party lines, and Democratic senators expressed doubts that this measure would solve the root cause of the bullying or ensure that a student who is moved wouldn't then be targeted in their new school.
Two mothers, both leaders in a grassroots advocacy group called Common Ground, also spoke against the bill.
"Frankly, we're just not falling for this one," said Marie-Claire Leman, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Tallahassee. "We don't believe that it's about bullying. We believe it's a thinly-veiled attempt to expand the source of funding for vouchers and to further privatize education."
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the bill's sponsor, said there are existing measures to help schools deal with bullies but this bill gives families options so a student isn't "trapped" in a place where they struggle to focus.
"As so often happens in the legislative process, you address one side of the equation and everybody piles onto the other side of the equation,” he said. “To put all the emphasis on one side, saying you don’t want to give restitution to victims, instead we want to give stiffer penalties to the offender, it doesn’t work that way. You have to have both sides.”
The committee also passed SB1434, a bill that started out as a measure to provide funding for school mental health programs but has since expanded to become an expansive package. Among the new issues it addresses is preventing "personal enrichment" in charter funding, after reports emerged of some charters fraudulently billing publicly funded schools to make a profit.
The bill would also make substantial changes to the Schools of Hope program, including: granting vouchers so students in low-performing district schools could move to private ones, removing the cap of low-performing schools that can get turnaround funding, allowing charters to take over the buildings of closed district schools and creating a "franchise" system for excelling principals to oversee more than one campus.
"I happened to like the bill a lot more when it was dealing simply with mental health assistance," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, who voted against it.