School choice scholarships pass 1 million mark in Florida

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SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

Chikara Parks is shown with her family. She received a scholarship for her daughter Tanijah to attend Academy Prep in St. Petersburg.

COURTESY OF STEP UP FOR STUDENTS

JACKSONVILLE – Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator has awarded its 1 millionth education choice scholarship, fueled by growing numbers of Black and Hispanic parents.

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, including more than 40,000 Black students and 50,000 Hispanic students.

“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.

“With school choice scholarships, the parents have the freedom to send their children to where they think they will get the best education,” said the Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights icon in the Pensacola area and longtime choice supporter. “One million scholarships is something we all ought to applaud.”

Blessing for family

Shareka Wright and her sons, Zion, 9, and Jayden, 7, are among those who have benefitted. Wright is a garbage truck driver for the city of Orlando, and her oldest child is thriving in public school. But when her two youngest struggled, she turned to private school.

Initially, the boys were on a wait list for scholarships, which forced Wright to sometimes choose between food and tuition. But now on Family Empowerment Scholarships, Zion
and Jayden are excelling academically.

“I work hard for my children so they can go on to college and careers, and it’s a blessing for them to be in a safe, quality learning environment,” Wright said. “These scholarships have been life changing.”

Another success story

Roline Powe of Belle Glade secured a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for her daughter, Armani, 13, after Armani was badly bullied in her prior school. Now Armani is thriving at her new school, and has her sights set on becoming a veterinarian.

The scholarship made all the difference in the world,” said Powe, who works as an assistant teacher.

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.

Choices ‘expanding’

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.

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.

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