Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.
Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.
“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”
Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.
Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.
An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.
“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”
Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.
Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.
Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.
“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”
For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or email@example.com, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
By DOUG TUTHILL
The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.
Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.
Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.
HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.
HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.
Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.
The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.
Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.
The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education.
All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.
This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.
By ROGER MOONEY
School days meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call for Linzi Morris and her children so they could make the 40-minute ride across Tampa, Florida to their respective middle schools and high schools, passing more conveniently located options along the way.
Because Linzi wanted the best education opportunity for her six children.
“I looked at it as an investment, an investment in their future,” she said. “I can take the easier route, but I’m looking at it as I want them to get the best opportunity to do the best they can do.”
That’s the power behind the income-based and special-needs scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. In Florida, parents are not tethered to their neighborhood schools even when personal funds won’t stretch that far. They have the flexibility to customize their child’s education and the freedom to send their child to a school outside their zone.
Step Up offers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for those who meet the eligibility requirements found here, and the Gardiner Scholarship for those children with certain special needs who meet the criteria here.
The scholarships are portable, too, meaning if the family moves to another part of the state, the scholarship moves with them to a participating school or approved providers and resources, as does their ability to choose the best education fit for their child.
During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren attended one of the more than 1,800 private schools in Florida that accept Step Up’s income-based scholarships.
Since its inception in 2001, Step Up has funded 1 million scholarships.
Those scholarships were used at faith-based and non-denominational schools; schools that emphasized arts and science and schools designed for children with certain special needs.
Some parents favored small schools with smaller class sizes, so their child could have more one-on-one time with the teacher. Others sent their children to larger private schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, a Catholic school with a student population of more than 1,800.
Some parents found schools located close to home. Others, like Linzi Morris, set the alarm clock for 5 a.m.
Linzi sent all six of her children to Academy Prep Center, a private middle school in Tampa, because of its high academic standards. Her two oldest sons attended Jesuit High in Tampa, while her daughters and youngest son attended Tampa Catholic High.
Her three oldest children have graduated college. Another will graduate college in the spring. Her two youngest are still in high school.
The morning commute is long and slowed by rush-hour traffic. But to Linzi, it was worth the investment that comes with the freedom given to parents who uses the opportunity to choose the educational path for their child.
Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.
By Roger Mooney
The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.
One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.
They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.
Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.
A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?
Well, let’s take a look using these examples.
Scholarships for children from lower-income families
The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.
In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.
Scholarships for children with certain special needs
Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.
She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.
A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)
The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.
Phyllis was relieved.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.
Scholarship for students who have been bullied
Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.
“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Scholarship for students struggling to read
In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.
Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”
It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.
Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)
With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.
The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.
“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JUDITH THOMAS
Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship parents, we have great news for you.
You can now apply for a scholarship for the 2019-20 school year. You are a renewal family if your child is using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the 2018-19 school year.
Renewal families will have processing priority until Jan. 31, 2019. If you apply on or after Feb. 1, 2019, you lose your priority status over new applications.
Don’t delay. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis in the order all required documents are received. Funds are limited, so the sooner you apply and submit all supporting documents, the faster and more likely you are to secure your child’s scholarship for the upcoming school year.
Processing times vary depending on the volume of applications received and can take up to eight weeks in some cases. Check your email for more information or use the chat on our website to contact us. Watch this helpful application checklist video today:
If you’re currently waitlisted for the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship, make sure you’re on the interest list to be notified when we’re opening applications for new families for the 2019-20 school year here.
With the final Florida schools kicking off the 2016-17 school year in the coming days, Step Up For Students team members have been busily working on applications for both the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
For the income-based scholarship, Step Up expects to have more than 92,000 students enrolled for the new year, and another several thousand more using the Gardiner to customize their learning.
“This is going to be the biggest year yet,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “We’re elated to be able to offer learning options to this many Florida students who need it most. I am proud and humbled by our scholarship operations staff for the incredible work they have been doing, and the long hours they have put in, to get these applications processed and awards into the hands of these deserving families.”
Step Up staff has been working tirelessly completing applications, as well as working on regular year-round duties. More than 106,000 students have been awarded on the tax-credit scholarship with nearly 91,500 enrolling by Aug. 22. Of those, about 61,200 are renewal scholars.
This year’s scholarship is worth up to $5,886 for tuition assistance or $500 for transportation funding to an out-of-district public school.
Lawmakers broadened the income-based scholarship this year to students whose household income level was slightly higher than the 185 percent of the poverty level previously required, similar to the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. If found eligible, many of these families can receive a partial scholarship to offset tuition costs.
The changes in the law, however, still require that the lowest-income families be awarded first. About 3,200 of these families, however, have already been awarded the tax-credit scholarship, too.
“Even working class families struggle with finding the right school for their children,” Tuthill said. “It’s tough to afford private school at those income levels as well. Now, we can start assisting these families find the best school for their children, too. And that’s very exciting.”
Also through the second week of August, more than 11,800 Gardiner applications had been started with about 5,600 students with certain special needs awarded for the new school year. The average Gardiner Scholarship is worth $10,000.
Both scholarships are still available for the 2016-17 school year. Income-based applicants who have been awarded, but have not yet formally enrolled their children into a private school must do so by Aug. 31 or forfeit the scholarship. After that, Step Up will continue to award scholarships until funding is depleted. This may mean that families receive news of a scholarship during the year.
Income-based scholarships will be accepted until Sept. 30. No new applications will be accepted after this time.
Gardiner applications remain open indefinitely.
Within the past week, Step Up For Students has sent three payment files to the bank to reimburse Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) parents and guardians, providers and schools for expenses.
There were more than 1,000 reimbursement requests in these files totaling $1.2 million.
“Since the implementation of PLSA, this is the most that we have paid in a week,” said Jasmine Johnson, PLSA claims manager for Step Up For Students
Several factors led to the milestone for the program that serves children, ages 3 up to 22, with certain special needs in Florida.
“The new IT systems that Step Up For Students built from scratch, the policies and procedures that we have enhanced, our reflections on lessons learned, and the dedication from each employee on every team got us to this point,” said Gina Lynch, Step Up’s senior director of Operations and Organizational Improvement. “We can and should be proud of what we are doing for our PLSA families.”
It seems the milestone led to an outpouring of praise on Step Up’s Facebook page with more than a dozen parents writing 5-star reviews in recent days, as well as expressing their appreciation for the PLSA program and recent funding.
“The ability to get what is needed to teach my child with special needs feels like giving her a future,” wrote PLSA parent Lisa Cali on Step Up’s Facebook page. “Learning what she needs, when, where and with the tools she needs to accurately absorb the information – it’s changed our life.”
The Florida Legislature created the state-funded PLSA program in 2014, and it’s the second year Step Up has helped administer the program for students with certain special needs. Once the program was signed into law, Step Up had only weeks to create and set up a system to run the program and staff members have been working hard to make improvements ever since.
“Our PLSA families have played a big role in our successes by alerting us when things aren’t working and letting us know what works, too,” said Lynch. “We thank them for their help and their patience. It is our greatest goal to serve our families the best we can.”
Step Up For Students’ work with both the PLSA and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a scholarship program for K-12 low-income children, has made the nonprofit organization a national model for the programs it runs.
“This is a significant honor,” Lynch said.
For more information about Step Up’s scholarship programs, visit www. StepUpForStudents.org.
While the 2015-16 school year is in its third month, it’s already that time of year again. Parents and guardians of Florida Tax Credit scholars through Step Up For Students may now apply for the 2016-17 school year.
Step Up partner schools have also been notified about the application season and have been asked to remind scholars to reapply now.
“This is something we have been working toward for several years and we’re excited that this year we can actually do it for our parents,” said Step Up’s Chief Operating Officer Anne White. “As our fundraising cap increases each year, our 3 percent administrative funds do as well, reducing the need for the application service fee. Our original budget had the fee being reduced to $14, but we worked with our various departments to ensure we can eliminate it altogether.”
The rest of the renewal process will look much the same, said Jeff Giese, director of operations.
For those renewal families, please access your parent login to begin the application process. As you apply, please be mindful of the following:
“As always, we urge you to completely finish your applications as soon as you can. This means submitting all of the requested documents. An application isn’t considered complete and can’t be processed until the application is filled out and all documents are in,” said Giese. “Once again, we expect an overwhelming number of applications and we would hate for renewal scholars especially to miss out due to missing paperwork, or an application filing that lingered too long.”
Applicants with any questions or concerns about this process, can all 877-735-7837. The Step Up Contact Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, with an hour closure from 11 a.m. to noon.
New family applications will open in the early spring, but those interested can add their information to our interest list and we will notify those families as we are preparing to open applications then.
About 2,400 Step Up for Students’ Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts families should have noticed something in their accounts this week: their funding for the 2015-16 school year.
The Florida Department of Education (DOE) has completed the review of first batch of approved accounts, and the remaining eligible student accounts are expected to be completed and funded in the near future.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience as the DOE has been working through its process to ensure those who have been approved are not enrolled in any other state-funded programs,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services.
The Florida Legislature created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, a state-funded scholarship for children with certain special needs in 2014. With the PLSA, families may personalize educational plans for their children by directing scholarship funds toward a combination of approved programs and providers including private schools, therapists, technology and even a college savings account. Each approved student receives an average of $10,000 annually.
This year, lawmakers increased the budget from about $18.5 million to $55 million to fund about 4,000 from the PLSA program this year.
Those accounts that are funded, parents and guardians may now access their child’s PLSA ID card containing the student’s PLSA number, by accessing your Parent login.
“The payment process can now begin for the 2015-16 school year, and with our new payment system in place, we expect that the submission to payment timeline to move much faster and be run more smoothly,” Watson said.
Step Up has sent out emails to each account holder, as well as to providers.
Parents are reminded that if there are providers that plan to submit reimbursement requests on behalf of their student, please share a copy of the PLSA ID card with that provider. The PLSA ID listed on that card is necessary to their reimbursement request process.
“Please be aware that reimbursement requests that come from a provider have to be approved by you prior to processing for payment. This approval process takes place within your parent login,” Watson said.
Providers may now submit reimbursement requests for funded students.
Additional questions regarding submitting reimbursement requests can be answered by reading our Provider Handbook.
PLSA applications are still open for the 2015-16 school year. To apply, got to (link).
Many parent questions about the PLSA program can be answered in the Parent handbook.
Anyone who needs additional help with questions or concerns about this, can contact Step Up at email@example.com or 877-735-7837.
By TRAVIS PILLOW
Florida’s tax credit scholarships continue to draw some of the state’s most disadvantaged students from struggling public schools, according to the latest evaluation of the program by independent researchers.
As in previous years, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students kept pace, on average, with their national peers. A score of zero means a student made the same learning gains as all test-takers.
After the students enroll in private schools on the scholarship, they tend to keep pace with their peers around the country, making about a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time.
The report for the 2013-14 school year, released by the state Department of Education on Tuesday, is based on test scores for more than 27,000 students in grades 3-10. It is the eighth evaluation of its kind, and the first conducted by a team from the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, which took over the role after a 2014 change in state law.
While the findings are similar to previous years, they cover more students, and include results for more individual schools, than ever before.
The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts the redefinED blog and employs the author of this post. It is the largest private school choice program in the country, and served nearly 60,000 students in the year covered by the report.
New scholarship students were more likely to be black, less likely to be white or Hispanic, and less likely to be English language learners than the low-income students who qualified for the program but did not participate. They also tended to score lower on standardized tests in public schools, and were more likely to come from schools that struggled academically. More than 25 percent of scholarship students came from public schools that had been rated “D” or “F” in the previous year.
“New [scholarship] students, as in previous years, tend to come from lower-performing public schools prior to entering the program,” the report states. “Moreover, they are more likely to be among the lower performing students in their prior school before attending the program, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”
The new evaluation also reports learning gains for scholarship students at 158 private schools, 48 more than the previous year. (Though scholarship students that year attended more than 1,400 schools, the state reports learning gains only for individual schools with at least 30 scholarship students who have current and previous-year test scores.)
Learning gains compare students’ national percentile scores from one year to the next. If students’ percentile rankings hold constant from one year to the next, they can be said to have made about a year’s worth of progress.
There is considerable variation among schools. Researchers found most of the schools achieved roughly the same learning gain as the program overall — a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time. But they also found 18 schools where students’ three-year average gains were significantly greater than the norm, and 31 schools where they were significantly less.
In their conclusion, the researchers note scholarship students overall appear to be keeping pace with their peers.
“[T]he typical FTC student tends to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with all students nationally both in mathematics and reading,” they write. “It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just students from low-income families.”
Travis Pillow is editor of redefinED. He spent his early professional career reporting on the inner workings of state government for a variety of news organizations, and became immersed in Florida’s education policy debates while covering schools and the Legislature for the Tallahassee Democrat. A product of Seminole County Public Schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2010. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (407) 376-3105. Also, follow him on Twitter @travispillow.