Ep. 237: Big Ideas – “Florida’s Hope Scholarships For Bullied Students” with Max Eden

February 11, 2021

Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, hops on the podcast to talk about the history of the Hope Scholarship, school choice in Florida and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined for the third time, first guest to make it to three so far, by Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of a new report titled, Florida’s Hope Scholarships for Bullied Students: A Report Card, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Max, welcome back to the podcast.

Max Eden: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Honored to be the first person back three times.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, the first three-timer. Well, the smoke jacket’s in the mail.
Before we dive into the Hope Scholarship, let’s just take a step back. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the broader educational choice environment in Florida, and then we can talk about how this particular program fits in with all the others.

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, so Florida has the great credit of being arguably the, or certainly one of the, two most choice-friendly states in America. They have several private school choice programs that were already on the books. They have the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income students. The DeSantis administration and the recent legislature has substantially increased the eligibility for that, so it’s going to kind of step-by-step creep up from being a pure low-income scholarship program to becoming a lower middle-income scholarship program, and potentially even one day a middle income scholarship program.

There are also a couple of private school choice programs that are geared towards students with disabilities. There’s the Gardiner ESA program, there’s the McKay voucher program. So students who have certain kind of like the more extreme end of disabilities can also have state money follow them to private schools.

And then of course, Florida also has a very robust and active charter sector. The exact percentage alludes me at the moment. But all of this taken together has made Florida one of the most choice friendly states in the country. And it’s frequently put forth as a case study by folks who analyze education of saying, “Hey, actually, look, spending has, in absolute terms or in nominal terms, actually decreased over the last decade, and achievement is up. It can be done, and choice is the ticket.” So it’s kind of one of the more exciting and advanced states in the country when it comes to school choice.

Jason Bedrick: So with all this educational choice, so what was the need for the Hope Scholarships? What were the authors of this legislation hoping to achieve, and then how do these scholarships work?

Max Eden: Yeah, so the Hope Scholarship, based on what the architects have said about it and have explained about their thought process, it didn’t really begin with a like, “Let’s make a new school choice program,” right? That wasn’t really the impetus of it. The impetus of it was that Richard Corcoran, who is now the commissioner of education, Byron Donalds, who was recently elected as a congressman, reported that they just kept on getting constituent complaint after constituent complaint after constituent complaint saying, “My kid has been bullied. My kid has been abused. My kid is being borderline tortured at a public school. And I keep on asking and begging for them to do something, and nothing happens. And I have nowhere else to go. I have nowhere to turn,” right?

So Donalds, Corcoran, Manny Diaz in the Senate got together, story is, to talk about this, “What do we do with these kids who are being terribly bullied, who have nowhere else to turn?” And, of course, in talking about that they realized, “Well, they should have somewhere else to turn. Kids for whom the daily experience of school is torture should not be all but forced by the state to be there. They should have an exit valve.”

The criticism, and we can talk more about it too, is it’s a roundabout way to address bullying perhaps, right? It’s not an amendment to a bullying law. It’s not more penalties. It’s not a new procedure. But what they’ve said is they were just looking for a way to just answer the constituent letters, the parents who felt like they had no choice, they had nowhere else to go, and they were truly stuck.

Jason Bedrick: So they wanted to create an escape hatch, and so they created this Hope Scholarship for students who are bullied or victims of abuse. How does the scholarship work?

Max Eden: Yeah. It’s interesting. When I start to describe it, I think some of your listeners’ ears might come off and say, “Wow, that seems kind of open for all sorts of chicanery.” But let’s say that your kid’s in a public school, Jason, and he’s been hit, he’s been punched, he’s been pushed. Something has happened to him, right? A complaint is lodged, you lodge a complaint. In the course of speaking to the school district about this incident that’s happened to your kid, the school district is now under Florida law required to tell you that basically because your kid was a victim, he is now eligible to switch to another public school if that’s what he wants, obviously go to a charter school and there’ll be some public funding to defray the transportation costs associated with going to a different public school, or if you want to, if you need to, you can also take advantage of a scholarship to send your kid to a private school.

So some of your listeners might have noticed that there was not actually a clear verification process involved, right? The school does not have to sign off on, “Yes, we can verify that at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 10, your kid was punched in the face by Timmy. And this is actually the fourth time that Timmy has been punched or shoved by Johnny. Therefore, now you’ve reached this point where we can give you state money.” The interesting thing is only the allegation is required to enable you to be eligible to send your kid elsewhere.

The knock against this during the course of the debate around it was like, “This is going to be totally open for abuse.” I mean, if you could just say that something happened, and all of a sudden you can cash in a ticket for 85% of FTE, probably around I think about $6,500. If you can just say, “My kid was bullied,” and you can cash out with money, that is, according to its worst critics, just a pretext for total privatization, total voucherization.

Jason Bedrick: Okay, so it looks like it could be ripe for “abuse.” Abuse meaning that you get to choose the school that works best for your child, right? And the money follows them. But the question is, did we see this massive flood of parents that were claiming that their child was bullied when maybe they weren’t and then are using the program?

Max Eden: No. That’s the interesting thing, right? I mean, it seems like we could have, it almost seems like we should have. It’s as easy as say something, get something, which the critics absolutely hated.

But the very interesting thing, and I think it belied the critics and it, frankly, disappointed a lot of the architects, was that this program has not really been that widely utilized. The Florida Department of Education expected, and I might not have this number precisely right, but expected that by one semester, that it’d be somewhere between 4,000 to 7,000 students on it. And at that point, there were fewer than 200. Before the COVID crisis hit, there were only… The estimate I had in the paper, the number I had in the paper was there were only 341 students using this, which is a strikingly small number of students. And it kind of begs the question as to why hasn’t there been more pickup on this.

There are a few possibilities, right? I mean, it certainly seems to rule out… Well, it definitely rules out any widespread use of the scholarship that’s contrary to the intentions of the architects, right? It’s clear that parents en masse are not taking the money and running with it for a light cause. But it could be the case that because as we discussed at the beginning, Florida has such a robust, choice-friendly climate in the first place, that a lot of the students who were being bullied in a position that would want to switch schools were already eligible for Florida income tax credit, which is higher name recognition, were already eligible for one of the disability voucher or ESA programs. It could be that.

It could be that school districts have been reluctant to fully inform parents of their rights under this new law. And there is some suggestive evidence from an evaluation that school districts were not particularly forthcoming with this information to some parents. It’s difficult to know how much to read into that. You don’t necessarily want to paint with a broad brush of saying school districts are systematically hiding this from parents, but there is some evidence that school districts are not fully complying with the requirements under this law, which would make sense.

Jason Bedrick: Right. In your paper, you actually identify a number of parents who responded to a survey and said that, for example, when they went to their school district and asked them to sign the paperwork about that there was an incident that took place, essentially, they slow walked it, at first they refused to sign it. In some cases, they had to actually physically come into the building and demand that they sign it or go over their heads to… I don’t remember if it was a superintendent or someone at the school board, in order to get that to happen.
But fortunately, the same survey found that 71% did not experience any challenges in the application process, and that 84% said that once initiated, it was easy to navigate. So I mean, that’s still about a third of parents that did have some challenges with the process. That doesn’t mean the school was not cooperating. It could have been just a difficulty with the paperwork or what have you.

But clearly, there’s room for improvement. But overall, it looks like the school districts are complying and they are trying to make it easy for the families. Would you say that’s right?

Max Eden: Well, unfortunately, and I try to do the on the one hand, on the other hand thing in the paper too. Unfortunately, you can’t even necessarily draw that conclusion either from the study, right? Because the study only looks at parents who have accessed and who are using it. It could very well be that if you did a similar study of parents who have had a bullying incident at the school and surveyed all parents whose kids were bullied and asked, “Did the school present this to you?” that number could be 80% of parents saying, “Yeah, the school district clued me in,” or it could be 5% of parents saying yes. There’s actually a really limited amount that we can infer from that particular survey as to the broader compliance of school districts on this.

Jason Bedrick: That’s a very good point. Okay, so you said that one possibility for low enrollment is that families are going to one of the other educational choice programs. Although, you mentioned those legislators that were getting all those phone calls about bullying issues. Well, those programs were already in existence then. So it’s not clear that’s it. It could be that districts aren’t informing parents. We’ve got some suggestive evidence that’s at least happening in some cases, but we don’t really know how widespread the problem is. You identified a third possibility, which is that severe bullying and abuse is actually rare than we feared. Do we have any evidence to support that?

Max Eden: A plausibility. Not anything I’m arguing is certainly the case. But when I talked to some folks in the Florida Department of Education and talked to some Florida teachers in other contexts, what they have said to me, and I think there’s some truth to it and I don’t know exactly how far it goes, is like, “Yeah, a lot of kids are pretty badly bullied. But a lot of them want to handle it. And for a lot of kids who are even pretty badly bullied, the thought of leaving the school because I’m bullied would feel bad to them. Would feel like a defeat, like a failure. Something that they don’t want to do.”

So it could well be I mean, either really severe bullying and abuse is rarer than I tend to fear, to be honest, and than the architects thought. Or it could be that bullying and abuse to the point that kids would be really willing and eager to just leave as a result of it, rather than try to find some other way to address it within the school is rarer than we thought.

Jason Bedrick: I’ll propose a fourth alternative, which is that maybe the existence of the Hope Scholarship program created a strong incentive for school districts to actually address the bullying issue, right? Whereas before, they may have felt they had a captive audience, right? If you’ve got a student who is not eligible for one of the school choice programs already and there’s a bullying incident, I think most schools want to try to address the problem. But there’s certainly a stronger incentive to address the problem when you know that this child can very easily leave and their parents could enroll them in a new school and the money would essentially follow that child out the building.

So maybe while as you noted earlier in the podcast, that this isn’t addressing bullying directly in that we’re not saying that this is a new system for punishing bullies or for holding schools accountable for bullying. But maybe by putting more power in the hands of parents to choose and giving them that escape hatch, we have changed the incentive structure for the district schools such that they have a greater incentive to actually address the issue.

Max Eden: Yeah, it’s an argument that I’m theoretically very sympathetic to and would like to be true. I mean, as longtime listeners of your podcast know, I wrote a book about the Parkland school shooting, which is a story of many things, but in part, a story of school officials who failed to act on student complaints and failed to take steps to make the school safer.
There was one story that was told by a parent and investigators, that they went to the principal’s office and complained about their kid feeling unsafe in school. And the principal told them, “If you don’t like how I’m running the school, you can leave.” Which is one thing when that’s an idle threat, right? And when the key force acting on the principal is, “I should keep these discipline numbers down because I know that my boss is evaluating me on it.”

But if that warrants an idle threat, if that were, “I’m sorry you don’t feel safe. If you want, you can take $6,000 and leave my school with the money that I very much want to remain in my school,” it changes the incentive structure for the leader, which is something that some principals said during the debate process. The legislature is something that I believe should be the case.

I don’t know yet, though, that they reached a saturation point administratively structurally where it is yet having that effect, right? There’s still an unknown as to are school districts not complying, or are they complying perfectly. And if school districts are complying reasonably, then you would have a very good reason to believe that this theory of action is actually coming into effect. If school districts are largely making it difficult though, then the force wouldn’t really be acting.

Jason Bedrick: So it’s worth noting, actually, that half the respondents to the survey that you cite in your report indicated that their child had been subjected to a violent incident. And 60% said that they had been wearied about the safety of their child at school before the precipitating incident. So this story where a family is really concerned about their child and they go to the principal and the issue is not being addressed seems to be… It’s not clear how widespread it is, but this is definitely an issue that a lot of the families participating in the program have had where they’ve been wearied for a while before there’s some sort of incident that is a turning point and they say, “Okay, this is just too much.” So what about the experiences of families with the program? Do we have any evidence that it’s actually meeting their needs?

Max Eden: Yeah, this study also kind of asked parents to rate their before and their after school experiences along various lines of feelings of safety, and engagement, and degree to which my teacher cares about me. They were all rated on a four point kind of metric system, and every category jumped substantially, somewhere between one and a half to two and a half points. But beyond the metric evidence and the studies… Because again, this is a very small survey. Only a small number of the small number of parents who are using it responded to it. Limited that we can extrapolate to satisfy a hard-nosed quant kind of guy.

But a lot of these parents in their stories, they will say… I mentioned this before, but I wanted to loop it back, in parents’ own words like, “Going to school every day was torture for my kid,” or, “There was a student there who continually threatened to kill my child, and this has been a lifesaver. Now my kid is a totally different human being.”

So I think there’s certainly a tendency in policy, in education policy, in school choice in particular, to want to look at numbers and metrics and judge success or failure based off of that. I feel that too. There’s a certain way in which I look at this program that I would have loved to have seen serve thousands of students. And then I see it only serve 341 students its first two years, and I feel disappointment to that. But even if it doesn’t grow substantially bigger, right? Even if it stays somewhat small numerically, these are really potentially fundamentally life-altering, and it may not be hyperbolic in all cases, lifesaving things that are being done for kids. You look at the before and after of the parents, and I think no matter what the numbers say about participation, how widespread it gets, you can’t call it a failure and you have to be happy for these kids that they were given this ticket out.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and just to point to one particular statistic that you cite in your paper, families that were asked about their child’s safety on a four-point scale, in their previous school, the average was about a 1.8. Okay? So under two. On a scale of one to four, we’re talking about under two. That jumped—in their chosen school with the Hope Scholarship—to 3.6, right? So now we’re talking closer to four than three on a four point scale. That is dramatic improvement.

Max Eden: Yeah, that is a huge change. But that’s still less persuasive and exciting and satisfying to me than the parental stories of like, “My child was in a horrible situation, and now he or she is thriving.”

Jason Bedrick: One final question. There’s been a lot of interest from policymakers that I’ve spoken to around the country in the Hope Scholarship. They are also getting those calls from constituents saying, “My child’s being bullied. The school’s not doing enough to address it. I need your help. What can you do?” And I know that the James Madison Institute, especially Bill Mattox over there, worked tirelessly to come up with model legislation that has since been adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council. There have been a number of reports, yours and others, written on this. We had Lennie Jarratt from the Heartland Institute, which they have a whole book out on student safety scholarships. What advice would you give to policymakers in Florida and in other states about based on the experience of the Hope Scholarship program, how could they improve that program? And then how could policymakers in other states, what should they do if they’re trying to draft a bill like this?

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, first, I think it can and should be stressed in any policy discussion that what some school choice advocates like myself and like some others of similar mind, the disappointment that we have that it’s only grown so far and so fast should actually be a keystone of the argument made by its proponents. Because the strongest argument that can be leveled against this and was leveled against this in the debate process was, “This is a Trojan horse for universal vouchers. It’s exceptionally rare for a state to have a voucher program or a choice program that isn’t income predicated or disability predicated. And this is just a way… They’re going to have this flood,” like we’ve been talking about. That didn’t happen. So the argument that this will open Pandora’s box, be an immediate slippery slope should be pretty effectively destroyed by the experience in Florida. It should not hold water. You should not be able to let other people make it.

In terms of how it can be designed better and what can be done, it’ll be different from state to state in terms of if they’re doing it as a scholarship tax credit, who exactly is running it and administering it. In Florida, it’s Step Up For Students, which is already administering the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the other disability scholarships, and they have a lot of experience on that. And I feel like it’s fine to say the folks there have said, “This was not really a key priority for us. It wasn’t something we pushed for. We’re happy to run it, but we have a lot else to do.”
There should be perhaps a dedicated watchdog organization that’s stood up with some substantial money that is there for parents and to be a watchdog over parents, right? In theory, scholarship tax credits are funded by some share of the tax credit that’s retained by the organization that’s running it. So if the concern is that the schools might really put a strong countervailing pressure on this by not wanting to show it, you need some organization, some entity that has a direct incentive to spread the word, a direct incentive to reach out to parents, a direct incentive to find the kids who are bullied, talk to the parents, guide them through. So really trying to stand up a quality organization with sufficient startup funding and that clear structure and mission to it’s your job to make sure that every kid who needs this information has it, is going to be really essential, especially in states that don’t already have an organization that’s doing it as multiple programs for the entire state.

Maybe most importantly, right? This concern that we’ve been talking about, how much are school districts actually complying, how do we know, this is a concern that it’s quite possible to directly address, right? I mean, in Florida, there are tens of thousands of qualifying incidents that are reported through the state system, and similar structures would have similar reporting requirements.

Whenever one of these incidents comes through, there should be a requirement that the school leader email the parents with the information, and CC a representative from the state education agency, and CC a representative from the nonprofit authority who’s administrating the scholarship program, right? There shouldn’t have to be a, “I wonder if they’re complying. I wonder if they’re not. How do we really find out?” It’s quite possible to design this from the get-go in such a way that you know what they’re doing. Or frankly, if you see that the year after this program starts, all of a sudden 10,000 of your kids said that they have problems, you know that you have a different sort of problem.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and as you mentioned, just to highlight this, that not only should the parents be informed, but when there is a qualifying incident, the entity that is running the scholarship program should also be informed so that they can reach out directly to that family and let them know about what the program is and how it works.

Max Eden: Yes, because I mean… It’s one thing for the school district to say, “Now you’re eligible for this,” right? That could be done in any number of ways. It could be done as a two sentence in the middle of a really long email with one of several attachments that aren’t really self-evident. But if parents actually get a phone call from a representative saying, “Hey, is your kid all right? Are you looking for something else? Did you know that you have this?” And there’s that direct human connection, it’s really hard to see how this couldn’t do exactly what its authors intended, if it were structured slightly differently.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And there again, this isn’t a ploy to persuade them to leave their school. The point is to make sure that the child is in an environment where they’re not being bullied. And when that parent walks into the principal’s office to address the issue, if they walk in knowing that they have this escape patch, that they’re able to leave and receive those scholarship dollars, it strengthens their hand and it makes it more likely, actually, that the school will protect the child and the child would even stay.

Max Eden: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, even if the call… I’m not saying this is a precise thing, but nine times out of 10, if the call… Is your kid all right? This option’s available. Maybe nine times out of 10, maybe seven times out of 10, the mom will say, “It’s not the end of the world. It’s a rough patch. It’s a hard time. There’s this one kid who has really been bad to my kid, but I’m not really looking to move.” But the mom knows that she can and has that extra bargaining chip to take with her to the principal’s office to say, “If you can’t guarantee me that my child will be safe and protected, I always could do this. I might not really want to, but I would hate to be forced to.”

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can find his new report, Florida’s Hope Scholarships for Bullied Students: A Report Card, at the Manhattan Institute website. Max, thanks so much for joining us.

Max Eden: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media, @edchoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.