Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program continues to grow in the Sunshine State and enrollment numbers are higher than ever for the 2016-2017 school year.
The latest numbers from Step Up For Students show over 92,000 students are currently enrolled in the program, an increase of nearly 13,500 students from the previous year and one of the highest increases in enrollment since the program began.
Step Up For Students is the largest nonprofit organization distributing the scholarships statewide.
The majority of students enrolled in the program come from Florida’s largest school districts. Over a quarter of scholarship recipients live in Miami-Dade County.
An additional 5,800 students received Gardiner Scholarships for the 2016-2017 school year, an uptick of nearly 25 percent from last year. The Gardiner Scholarship Program is limited to students with special needs and autism.
Since 2002, thousands of Florida students have participated in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which gives low-income students scholarship money to attend better-performing schools, which are often private religious schools.
The program has grown by leaps and bounds throughout the years, with an increase of nearly 80,000 students since the 2005-2006 school year.
Step Up For Students says the increase is a result of two specific causes: parents embracing school choice options for their children and an increase in state-set fundraising for the program.
“Florida is a national leader in expanding educational opportunity, and the latest numbers again show that parents appreciate the power to access additional options that can best serve their children,” said Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill.
Assistant director of policy and public affairs for Step Up For Students Ron Matus told Sunshine State News the sharp increase in scholarship enrollment was due to more money funneling into the program.
“Our state-set fundraising cap increased to $559 million this year, up from $447 million last year,” said Matus in an email.
By law, the cap will grow 25 percent each year the program meets 90 percent of the prior year’s cap.
“So the higher cap means we can raise more in contributions, which means more money for scholarships,” Matus continued.
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program has been mired in controversy in recent years. The program is the center of a Florida Education Association lawsuit which has sought to end the program, alleging it is unconstitutional and diverts much-needed funding from Florida’s public school system.
The lawsuit has been a back-and-forth battle between the teachers’ union and the voucher program, where the scholarships are entirely funded by businesses who in turn receive tax breaks for their participation.
Earlier this month, an appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, saying the FEA and other plaintiffs failed to prove how public school funding had decreased as a result of the program.
Despite the controversy, the lawsuit may have actually helped the program get the word out to students and parents who qualify for the program. A source affiliated with the program told SSN the headline-making lawsuit could have also been a big reason for the program's enrollment increase.
The program expects to continue to receive last-minute enrollments, which may further increase the number of students in the program.