Public education is rooted in the promise of equal educational opportunity, and nowhere is that covenant more relevant than in the hardscrabble lives of children who live in and near poverty. In Florida, only 53 percent of economically disadvantaged children read at grade level and only 37 percent of African-American males graduate from high school. There are no magic solutions to this persistent and national education dilemma, but a scholarship that grants these students more options is another arrow in their learning quiver.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship was born of a desire to help children whose household income tends to limit their options in the educational arena. It was the dream of a Tampa businessman, John Kirtley, who in 1998 started the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay Scholarship Fund and received 12,500 applications for 750 scholarships for low-income children. By 2001, Kirtley persuaded the Legislature that low-income students throughout the state deserve options. In the 2002-03 school year, a scholarship program was begun.
These scholarships are not tied to the performance of public schools or the students who receive them. Rather, they are offered as options in the same way that public education is offering an expanding array of choices – magnet programs, International Baccalaureate, fundamental schools, online courses, charter schools and the like. The Tax Credit Scholarship, which is known to many by the name of our scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, is one of those education options that is different primarily because it is targeted directly at the students for whom the fewest options are available.
One common mistake people make about these scholarships is to view them as somehow an indictment of public schools. In fact, they are intended to strengthen public education by offering more tools to struggling schoolchildren. The latest state-commissioned research has determined that the students who choose the scholarship are among the lowest-performing students in the public schools they leave behind. That finding is important, because it means the scholarship is helping those who need it most.
In fact, Tax Credit Scholarship recipients are also among the state’s poorest students. On average, the household income of a scholarship recipient is 9 percent above poverty, far below the threshold for free or reduced-price lunch of 85 percent above poverty. Two-thirds of the children are either African-American or Hispanic and nearly 55 percent live in single-parent households.
This year 69,671 low-income students received scholarships to attend 1,525 different private schools through our scholarship organization, Step Up For Students. We consider ourselves to be partners with public schools, and often use a tagline – “helping public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity” – that represents a genuine expression of how we view our role in the larger education system. The work of helping low-income students succeed is not easy, and we are not here to point fingers. We are here to roll up our sleeves and help.