School choice scholarships pass 1 million mark in Florida

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator has awarded its 1 millionth education choice scholarship, punctuating two decades of rapid growth that has distinguished Florida as the national leader in school choice.

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers five of the state’s six K-12 scholarship programs, awarded its 1 millionth scholarship this fall. Founded in 2002, the organization now serves more than 140,000 students each year, most of them low-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their parents to better access the learning options that work best for their children.

“This milestone is another powerful sign of how public education is becoming more diverse, more equitable, and more tailored to the needs of individual students,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill.

Donna and Randall Scott of Palm City and their four children are among thousands of families in the Treasure Coast who have benefitted from choice scholarships. Two of their children, Tyler and Morgan, use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend John Carroll High School. The other two, Hunter and Asher, use the scholarships to attend St. Joseph Catholic School.  

“We wanted our children to get a great education, with both the academic excellence and spiritual nourishment they need to grow into healthy young adults. Without the scholarships, this would not have been possible,” said Donna, who is a stay-at-home mom, while Randall is a driver for FedEx. “We’re 100 percent thankful for the scholarships, every single day. For us as a family, they have been life changing.” 

Step Up For Students is based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg. It manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome; the Hope Scholarship for bullying victims; and the Reading Scholarship Account for struggling readers in public schools.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the oldest and largest of the five programs, now serves about 100,000 students each year. More than 90 percent are low-income; 75 percent are non-white. Rigorous research shows they were typically the students who struggled the most in their prior public schools, but are now enrolling in college and earning bachelor’s degrees at far higher rates than their public school peers.

The Gardiner Scholarship is the most distinctive of the five programs. As an education savings account, it allows parents to pay for tuition, tutors, therapists, technology, curriculum and other educational goods and services that can be flexibly assembled in a way that best serves the child.

Numerous studies show choice scholarships save taxpayer money that can be re-invested in public schools. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, for example, is worth 60 percent of district per-pupil funding.

Scholarship growth coincides with a rapid expansion of choice in Florida. Forty-eight percent of Florida students in PreK-12 – 1.7 million – now attend something other than their zoned neighborhood schools, up from 10 percent a generation ago. Meanwhile, that expansion parallels rising academic trend lines for Florida public schools, which Education Week now ranks No. 3 in America in K-12 achievement.

See the contact information above for more details about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family.