One man’s passion, a legislature’s resolve

In 1998, a young Tampa venture capitalist named John Kirtley discovered the lack of educational options available for low-income children and took matters into his own hands. Kirtley, working with the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, created the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay to provide privately funded scholarships for low-income children to attend a K-8 school of their choice. In three months, with little publicity, his program received 12,500 applications for 750 scholarships. His passion was born.

With Kirtley’s help, lawmakers in 2001 created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program gave corporations credit for redirecting their state tax obligations toward K-12 scholarships that helped low-income families send their children to participating private schools or to public schools outside their districts. Upon the program’s passage, Florida House Rep. Joe Negron, who sponsored the legislation, said, “This puts the parents in charge.”

“This puts parents in charge.”Florida House Rep. Joe Negron

In 2006, lawmakers adopted a comprehensive set of financial and educational controls, including the requirement that each student in the program take a standardized test recognized by the state Department of Education. Three independent research organizations – the Collins Center for Public Policy, Florida TaxWatch and the state Office of Program Policy and Government Analysis – concluded the program has saved money for the public education system.

In 2010, the Legislature put the scholarship program on a path for continued growth and success by allowing the fundraising cap to grow by 25 percent when 90 percent of the cap is reached in the prior year. Lawmakers also indexed the scholarship amount to public school spending, ultimately reaching 80 percent of the basic per-student operational formula. New potential tax sources for tax credits were added, bringing the total to five: corporate income, insurance premium, alcoholic beverage excise, direct pay sales and oil and gas severance. Also, the law required individual schools of sufficient size to disclose test score gains and financial information. The expansion bill passed by a broad bipartisan majority.

Today Step Up manages multiple scholarship programs offering scholarships to more than 100,000 low-income students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, nearly 18,000 on the Family Empowerment Scholarship, more than 13,000 on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs, nearly 2,000 on the Reading Scholarship and more than 200 on the Hope Scholarship for victims of bullying and harassment.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program remains Step Up’s largest program. It is also the largest scholarship program of its kind in the nation.

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