`Hope Scholarship' Plan Draws Debate

Nov 8, 2017

Florida House members began moving forward Wednesday with a controversial proposal that would allow public-school students to receive voucher-like scholarships to attend private schools if they have been bullied, harassed or subject to violence.

The bill (HB 1), approved by the House Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee, is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a major supporter of school-choice programs. Supporters said it is aimed at helping students who are victims of problems such as bullying.

“This bill is to empower parents,” says Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who is sponsoring the proposal. “This bill is to empower children to be their best.”

But critics questioned whether it is more about expanding voucher programs —  long one of the most-controversial education issues in Florida. Some also said lawmakers should instead focus on dealing with students who bully others.

“In honesty, I'm struggling with the bill because, for me, it's more about vouchers,” says Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami.

The proposal, dubbed the “Hope Scholarship Program,” would allow students who have been bullied or subject to other types of abuse to transfer to other public schools or to receive the voucher-like aid to go to private schools.

It is modeled somewhat after the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps pay for tens of thousands of low-income students to go to private schools. In that program, businesses receive tax credits for donating money to organizations that, in turn, offer private-school scholarships.

The private-school aid in the Hope Scholarship Program would be funded through tax credits on the purchases of new or used cars. Car buyers would be able to designate $20 to go to non-profit organizations that would administer the scholarship program. In return, car buyers would get a $20 credit on the taxes they would otherwise pay on the purchases.

A House staff analysis said Florida had an estimated 3.4 million to 4 million purchases of cars and light trucks last fiscal year. If half of those purchases led to buyers contributing to the Hope Scholarship Program, the tax credits would reduce state general revenue between $34 million and $40 million, the analysis said.

The House panel voted 9-5 to approve the bill Wednesday. Donalds and other backers focused on giving families choices to change schools if children are being bullied or otherwise victimized.

“I think this bill fights for the victims and on their behalf,” says Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora.

But Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, said the proposal of using tax credits on vehicle purchases to fund scholarships would be a step toward using other similar strategies to expand vouchers.

“This is not going to end here — mark my words,” Abruzzo says.