Florida Board of Education approves rules governing two educational choice programs

Florida is set to become the first state in the nation to implement two unique scholarship programs – one for victims of bullying and the other for public school students struggling with reading. Rules governing these two educational choice programs, the Hope Scholarship and the Reading Scholarship Accounts, were adopted by the Florida Board of Education today.

Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that publishes this blog, will be the only scholarship organization in Florida administering the two new programs. It will receive an administrative allowance equal to 3 percent of the scholarships. AAA Scholarship Foundation, the other state-approved scholarship organization, has chosen not to participate.

Created to help public school students in third through fifth grade who face difficulties in reading, the Reading Scholarship Account gives parents access to an education savings account worth $500 to pay for fees and tuition related to part-time tutoring, summer and after school literacy programs, reading curriculum and instructional materials. Step Up administrators say they are also working with some school districts that are developing after-school reading programs to offer to their parents.

The State Legislature appropriated $9.7 million for the scholarships in 2018-19, which can serve more than 19,000 students. The scholarships will be available on a first-come first-serve basis for students in grades 3 through 5 who scored poorly in the spring on the annual state reading test. Priority will be given to students who are designated as “English Language Learners.”

Parents can begin applying for the program with Step Up in early August, and more than 1,400 people have already signed up on an interest list. Applications for the second new scholarship program, Hope, will open in October.

The Hope Scholarship program was created by the Legislature to give victims of bullying, intimidation, sexual offenses or violence the ability to seek a transfer to another public school or to receive a scholarship to a private school. The incident must have taken place at a public school, a school related activity or school sponsored event.

When a student reports an incident of bullying, the school launches an investigation. Under the new law, the school will notify the family of the scholarship option within 15 days of the reported incident or the conclusion of the investigation, whichever comes first. Rules approved today create a statewide notification form public school principals will use to notify students of their eligibility for the scholarship program.

The program is to be funded by individual donors who will be allowed to contribute up to $105 of the sales taxes they pay on motor vehicle purchases to the scholarship program. Those credits are not available until October 1, 2018.

The state projected the sales tax-credited contributions could produce $27 million for scholarships in 2018-19, but Step Up officials are being cautious. They say they cannot yet forecast how many scholarships will be awarded from contributions that will come from an entirely new revenue source. To date, 898 students have signed up on a scholarship interest list, but the organization does not anticipate having any funds available for scholarships until at least November.

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BY Livi Stanford

Livi Stanford is former associate editor of redefinED. She spent her earlier professional career working at newspapers in Kansas, Massachusetts and Florida. Prior to her work at Step Up For Students, she covered the Lake County School Board, County Commission and local legislative delegation for the Daily Commercial in Leesburg. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.