The state of Florida offers several scholarships to students in an attempt to give everyone the opportunity for a quality education. One scholarship, called the Hope Scholarship, was signed into law in 2018 to protect students who are victims of bullying or harassment in school. The scholarship allocates funds for students to transfer to a public school in another district, or an approved private school, by school district personnel.
Since 2018, 486 students in grades K-12 have taken advantage of the scholarship, which is funded primarily through tax-credited contributions.
But in light of recent optional mask policies and the pediatric Covid-19 case surge in Florida, the Hope Scholarship has grown to protect victims of “Covid harassment.” This allows families to transfer their children to a private school if they are bullied for wearing—or not wearing—a mask at school. Instead, they can transfer to a school that suits their views.
According to a news release by the governor’s office on Aug. 6, “the state Board of Education passed two emergency rules that clarify the eligibility of the Hope Scholarship and provide school districts with flexibilities to ensure the educational continuity of students. [...] The scholarship ensures parents can transfer their public school student to a private school or another district in the state if the student has been subjected to harassment due to personal health care choices.”
Personal health care choices, in this case, refers to the choice to wear or not wear a mask. Most counties in the state have optional mask mandates to accommodate DeSantis' order barring schools from enforced mask mandates. Some districts, however, like Broward, Orange, Seminole and now, temporarily, Manatee County, have pushed back. These districts are requiring masks despite the governor’s threat to pull government funding if they do so.
Per the Florida Department of Revenue, Hope Scholarship money is funded through donations of a $105 sales tax when Floridians purchase a vehicle. Buyers have the option “to donate sales tax toward an eligible nonprofit scholarship foundation,” says the department’s website. The “scholarship-funding organization,” in this case is Step Up For Students, Inc., which allocates money to the Hope Scholarship and works with the Florida Department of Education to dole out scholarship vouchers to eligible students.
Step Up for Students, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit, was founded in 2002 by Tampa Bay businessman John Kirtley. The organization has received millions of dollars in revenue since, including more than $618 million in the 2019 fiscal year. The revenue streams to scholarships that empower lower-income students, children with special needs, struggling readers or bullied kids the opportunity to attend private or out-of-district public schools, according to Step Up for Students' website.
According to the Manhattan Institute, Hope raised more than $78 million in the 2020-2021 school year, funding 486. The question of how many families will take advantage of the scholarship due to “Covid harassment” remains.
“This is unfortunate and very disingenuous to the process,” Florida Senator and former public school teacher Shevrin Jones wrote on Twitter on August 5. “The Hope Scholarship was to be used for students who were being bullied in public schools, and now we are expanding this to be for parents who don’t want their kids to wear a mask.”
The Sarasota County School District states it will keep the Hope Scholarship for what it is intended—protecting students from any form of harassment. The school district would not comment on how many Sarasota County students have applied for this scholarship since the program’s inception three years ago—or if any students have applied because of masking.
“We are committed to providing high-quality instruction for every student in an environment that is safe and supportive,” says Sarasota County Schools director of communications Craig Maniglia. “With this emergency rule, our procedures will be updated to include protection for all students from Covid harassment.”