Florida created the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2001 to give students one learning option that is not available to them because of their financial circumstances. It allows them to consider whether a private school might be a better fit academically.
The program served 102,969 students in 1,934 private schools throughout the state during the 2020-21 school year, and the mix is truly eclectic. The schools that have chosen to join the cause of helping underprivileged students run the gamut – everything from the six-student Walden Middle School in Gulfport to the to the 1,512-student Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale. The average school in the 2020-21 school year has 56 scholarship students.
Principal Kathleen Kiley, whose St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando has won the national Blue Ribbon School award, views the program this way: “If it wasn’t for the scholarship, there’s no way (the neighborhood kids) could afford to go here. Now, they can go to a nationally recognized school.”
The Tax Credit Scholarship program in Florida is overseen by nonprofit Scholarship Funding Organizations, and Step Up For Students is one of two in the state actively raising private funds and distributing scholarships. Step Up has a team that helps schools navigate the process of applying to the state Department of Education for participation in the scholarship program. Step Up also reviews applications for families each year to determine their eligibility for the program. Once a student is approved for a scholarship, the family itself decides which participating school the student should attend.
The scholarship is paid in installments throughout the school year, with both the parent and the school endorsing the check. Under a new law adopted in 2010, the scholarship will climb to 88 percent for a student in kindergarten through grade 5, 92 percent for a student in grade 6 through grade 8, and 96 percent for a student in grade 9 through grade 12 of the per-student operational formula for public schools.