Thursday, November 19, 2020

FL: Bullying, Vouchers, And More Baloney

When it comes to school choice, Florida (state motto: "We'll abolish public education any day now") is the place to be. With an array of anti-public education public officials, a non-functioning Democratic party, and the a long history of legislative baloney, it's no wonder that this is Betsy DeVos's idea of how a state is supposed to get things done.

But even for Florida, the anti-bullying Hope Scholarship is an impressive feat. Max Eden at the Manhattan Institute (a generally reform-friendly thinky tank) has just written up a report on how the Hope Scholarship is going. The answer is, "Meh, not so great yet."

Such a pretty, lousy place

First, you have to appreciate how the Hope Scholarship works, because it is the most clever school choice dodge I've seen. A student alleges bullying, abuse or violence. The principal investigates and provides a written report. The parents then have a range of options, including moving their child to another school in the district, a public school out of the district, a charter school, or get Hope Scholarship funds to attend a private school. Eagle-eyed readers might think I just skipped a step, but I didn't. Let Eden explain:

Notably, the parent need not be dissatisfied with the remedy proposed by the school district for the incident to qualify. Indeed, the school district need not even conclude that the alleged incident occurred. An allegation is sufficient to render a student eligible for a Hope Scholarship.

The standard line on Hope Scholarships is that they are available to "students who have been subjected to bullying" but in fact, they are available to any student who alleges they have been bullied. It is the lowest bar ever for getting a voucher--just say the words, "I've ben bullied."

The financing is also creative. Hope Scholarships were meant to be another version of tax credit scholarships-- contribute to the program, get a tax credit. But Florida is already loaded with such programs, so for this one, anyone buying or registering a car in Florida gets a chance at a $105 sales tax credit by contributing to the program (which is described again as one that provides a chance for a student who was "subjected to an incidence of violence or bullying" to get into a private school).

Eden's account of the genesis of this program is refreshingly straightforward:

The Hope Scholarship program was not enacted in response to grassroots pressure or lobbyists. It was driven primarily by a handful of committed Republican state legislators, especially former House Speaker (and current state commissioner of education) Richard Corcoran, Representative Byron Donalds, and State Senator Manny Diaz. According to Jared Ochs, a former legislative aide to Corcoran who now serves as director of legislative affairs for the Florida Department of Education, there was never much suspense about whether this bill would pass. Corcoran “had a strong group of members” who “believe in his vision,” Ochs notes. “Traditionally, the Florida House of Representatives has been controlled by Republicans who have been absolute warriors for parental choice.”

William Mattox of the James Madison Institute's J. Stanley Marshall Center for Education Options, tells legislators in other states that this kind of program can serve as a great "beachhead" for for getting a school choice foot in the door.

Ochs tells a story about the Speaker of the House (Corcoran, at the time) getting lots of e-mails from parents about bullying (because when you're concerned about your child being bullied in school, you naturally call your legislature's speaker of the house). In that story, Corcoran and staff go looking for a solution to bullying, and landed on school choice. Although this next part of the story rings a bit more true:

According to Mattox, Representative Donalds had hoped to leave his mark in the legislature by pioneering a new school choice program. Together, Donalds, Corcoran, and their staffs outlined a proposal and announced it at a press conference on October 11, 2017.

Byron Donalds, you may recall, is the husband of Erika Donalds, who used to be a New York investment banker, then rode the Tea Party train to a position as an education insider and anti-public ed advocate in Florida. So maybe this is one of those "when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" moments, or maybe it was always about making a "mark" as a school choice guy, and bullying seemed like a handy excuse/cover story. 

Eden provides an account of the arguments raised for and against the program. Against included the notion that creating an escape hatch for bullied kids doesn't really do anything about bullying in the school, a problem that the Southern Poverty Law Center rep pointed out we know how to address. Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO pointed out that the program sets up a framework for universal vouchers and further dismantling of public ed, which of course it does. Patrick Gibbons of Step Up For Students, the outfit that administers these vouchers in Florida, noted that since they were first come, first served, the "scholarships" could run out from use by students with "very light cause," leaving students with larger issues stranded. An amendment was actually introduced to require school district verification of the student complaint, but Donalds, Corcoran and Diaz were not having that. The bill became law in March of 2018.

Corcoran's office had figured about 100,000 Florida students were being bullied. The state expected about 7,300 students to sign up for Hope Scholarships in the fall of 2018. Instead, initial enrollment was 60 students. By February of 2020, the number was up to 371.

Eden considers three possible reasons that Hope Scholarships have landed with such a thud.

One theory is that school districts are keeping Hope Scholarships a secret. Eden finds that the majority of parents in the program were duly informed and experienced no challenges in the application process.

Another theory is that the threshhold at which a student will actually change schools is higher than the policy-makers guessed. 

Finally, there are so many choice programs in Florida, it's entirely possible that bullied students have already used another program as an avenue of escape. This strikes me as likely--Florida has served up so many school choice programs that at this point they are competing with each other. 

It is also possible that much of the PR for Hope Scholarships has focused on what it claims to be--a scholarship program for students who have been bullied--instead of what it actually is--a scholarship program for anybody at all as long as they are willing to allege that they've been bullied. Will business pick up once the word gets out?

Who knows, because in Florida there is always one more possibility, which is that the "market" for school choice programs may well be saturated, and everyone who wants to get into a privately own-and-operated school is mostly already there.

Nor does Eden address the other side of this issue--a voucher for a private school only helps if the private school is willing to accept you. But if, as is too often the case, the student is being bullied because they're an LGBTQ student, there are plenty of vouchers schools in Florida that will not accept that student, voucher or not

Given the testimonials Eden includes, there's no doubt that some non-zero number of students have been able to get into safer environments via this program. That does not offset the problem that a program like this does absolutely nothing to stem bullying in schools; in fact, it is hard not to imagine bullies becoming emboldened by the discovery that they can in fact drive a student right out of their school. 

Bullying in schools is a complicated and difficult problem that deserves attention and care. Hope Scholarships are not an honest attempt to solve that problem, but just one more way for Florida's politicians to further undermine public education in the state. 

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