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Limitations of Florida’s Step Up Scholarship Program

Florida’s school choice voucher program is among the most complex in the country, making it challenging to meet ever-increasing applicant numbers and families’ growing demands. The scholarship funding organization responsible for managing it says they’ve been strained this year due to an increase in applicants; lawmakers may need to put more money into their system in order to meet growing demand.

Parents typically support using public funds to support families whose children would struggle in traditional public schools; however, many are frustrated with Step Up for Students in Jacksonville managing the state’s newly expanded voucher initiative and its long waits and poor customer service. Many have begun social media review campaigns against this nonprofit which has failed to respond sufficiently to their complaints.

Many complaints relate to private schools that claim they are on the brink of closure due to not receiving payments, medical providers who refuse to treat a student due to unreimbursed billing, and lengthy delays in approving instructional material purchases. WEAR reached out to Step Up for Students for comment; their spokesman noted that due to changes in state law this year that caused payment delays, payments may now arrive later than normal; but said Step Up still met its deadlines and hoped the Legislature would review this matter during 2024 regular session so steps could be taken that could speed things up further.

Step Up has come under criticism for using US Bank cards instead of direct deposit to distribute scholarships to families, making it more difficult for some without an account at US Bank to transfer the voucher funds directly into their personal accounts for therapy services and bills like electricity and rent payments. Some parents object to Step Up giving its card business to an organization recently fined for accessing consumer credit reports without permission and opening accounts without their knowledge; ironically enough US Bank is also one of its sponsors and features on its advisory board.

Despite criticisms leveled against them, the organization insists they are taking steps to enhance service to families and school choice programs. Their chief executive wrote to auditors to inform them they have improved communications as well as procedures and systems.

The governor’s budget proposal aims to do away with income eligibility requirements for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities while keeping in place an overall voucher limit and waiting list system. It is anticipated that state officials will finalize their budget next month and establish new limits for the 2023-2023 school year.

The state’s other two major school choice scholarships are also limited. The Gardiner Scholarship, targeted to low-income children, can only grant 75,000 recipients while the Robinson Scholarship – targeted toward students with disabilities – only grants 41,000 individuals; though certain exemptions exist such as foster care or being the child of law enforcement officer.

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