May 2018 Church & State Magazine - May 2018

Florida Creates Vouchers For Bullied Students, Expands Other Vouchers

  Liz Hayes

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) capped the state’s 2018 legislative session on March 11 by signing into law an education bill that expands funding for private school vouchers and requires the display of “In God We Trust” in public schools.

House Bill 7055 “was a must-pass education funding bill,” wrote AU State Legislative Counsel Nik Nartowicz on the “Wall of Separation” blog. “Advocates for school vouchers used this to their advantage and inserted provisions into the bill to create new and expand existing voucher programs” that fund private, primarily religious schools.

One of those programs is the Hope Scholarship, which would give vouchers to students who have been “bullied, harassed, or hazed.” As Nartowicz noted in a letter urging Scott to veto the bill, pushing the victims of bullying to leave their public schools – which must provide state-mandated, anti-bullying protections – to attend private schools that don’t have the same protections could mean bullied students “find themselves bullied again, this time with no legal remedy.”

Private schools also are under no obligation to accept students and can discriminate, rejecting already vulnerable bullied students “based on religion, sexual orientation, disability status, and other criteria – the very same groups of students who are often bullied,” Nartowicz said. Additionally, the bill establishes no repercussions for the alleged bullies who remain in public schools.

HB 7055 also expands the funding for two existing voucher programs: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Gardiner Scholarship. Now a tax credit on commercial rental property taxes will divert up to $57.5 million away from the general revenue fund into private school vouchers. That’s on top of the estimated $40 million that the Hope Scholarship will cost in just the first year.

“[V]ouchers just don’t work,” Nartowicz wrote. “They don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, and deprive students of rights provided to public school students. And [reports on] current voucher programs in Florida prove that students are performing worse in math and reading in many voucher schools and that less than 30 percent of schools are accredited.”

As reporter Zac Anderson noted in the News Chief of Winter Haven, Fla.: “It’s just the latest expansion of what has become the country’s largest school voucher experiment, one that eventually could go nationwide thanks to support from President Donald Trump’s administration. No state dedicates more money to vouchers than Florida, which is fast approaching $1 billion in tax revenues diverted to vouchers that pay for private school and other private education programs.”

The third strike against HB 7055 is that it requires the words “In God We Trust” to be displayed in a conspicuous place in every Florida public school.

“This is another bad idea,” Nartowicz wrote. “Florida’s families and students practice a variety of religions and faiths – and it’s important that our public schools respect and welcome everyone. But bills like this do the exact opposite and can make students with different or no religious beliefs feel like outsiders. This violates religious freedom, which mandates that parents and families, not public schools, get to decide how their kids learn about faith.”

Ironically, Scott signed HB 7055 into law on the eve of national Public Schools Week – during which Americans United joined supporters and allied organizations nationwide to voice support for public education.

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