A bill in the Kansas Legislature would let students escape bullying by transferring to a new school, either public or private.
But critics say the bill is little more than an attempt to send state dollars meant for public schools to private alternatives.
The Kansas Hope Scholarship Act, sponsored by two Republican representatives from Wichita, would require schools to inform parents and students about transferring after a case of bullying has been reported. That would occur regardless of whether an investigation by the school found any evidence of bullying.
A student could transfer to either a public or private school. If a student chooses a private school, most of the state aid that goes to the public school for that student would go into an account run by the Kansas treasurer.
Those funds can then be used by the student to pay for tuition and supplies, such as books. Extra funding is also provided for transportation to the new school.
“This serves notice that this is a serious problem,” said Chuck Weber, director of the Kansas Catholic Conference and a former state legislator. “We want to give them options to get out of that bullying situation.”
Opponents call this a voucher program, meant to take public school funding and deliver it to private schools. They say that would damage the finances of public schools and make those tax dollars less accountable because they would be in private hands.
“We strongly oppose any voucher-type bill,” said Devin Patrick Wilson, the legislative chair of the Kansas State PTA. “That removes transparency and accountability.”
Dealing with bullying by having victims leave their school has also been criticized.
Wichita Public Schools board member Ben Blankley wrote an email to state lawmakers opposing the bill. Blankley said that as a student at a public middle school in Iowa, he dealt with severe bullying. He thinks that encouraging bullied students to transfer will only empower bullies.
“That was the very first thing that the bullies wanted is us gone,” Blankley said. “They wanted us out of the environment, and this would encourage that kind of behavior."
National advocates for bullying victims said transferring out of school to escape bullying can be a legitimate solution. Distance from a bully can provide needed relief for students afraid to attend a school.
But they say that should be a last resort. Advocates are concerned that bringing up the transfer option during the first reported incident could lead parents to transfer their child before families have gone through other steps, such as working with the school to solve the problem.
Ross Ellis, founder of Stomp Out Bullying, said immediately transferring to escape bullying would send the wrong message and could make bullies incorrectly feel like heroes.
“I would try and work it out in every possible way before I sent my kids to another school," Ellis said.
Defenders of the bill say having an exit option is necessary. Adding private schools also gives students a wider selection of schools for finding one they feel safe in.
And while proponents say it wasn’t their original intention, letting public schools know that they’re at risk of losing some state funding if bullying isn’t dealt with could get those schools to better address the issue.
There aren’t any estimates for how many students would take the transfer option. Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget office said it would take at least 1,200 students for the program to fund itself because some of the transferred state aid would cover administrative costs.
Rep. Susan Humphries of Wichita, one of the bill’s sponsors, has heard concerns that the bill uproots victims while ignoring the bullies. She said Kansas has enacted other anti-bullying legislation that focuses on bullies, but there needs to be legislation that provides relief for victims.
“In no way is the bully in control here,” Humphries said. “It’s the parent and the person being bullied. They’re the ones that chose to either stay or they may go if that’s what they want to do.”
Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.