Who Gets Vouchers in Florida?

123,000 new students taking Florida school vouchers, report says

Florida lifted income level requirements for vouchers for fall 2023. Priority is given to lower income families, but 44 percent are from families below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $55,000 in income for a family of four.

As of Sept. 8, 242,929 students had enrolled in 2,098 private schools using vouchers through the state’s two main programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, according to a report by Step Up for Students, an organization that administers the vast majority of vouchers in the state.

That is an increase from the roughly 170,000 students who received vouchers through the programs during the 2022-2023 school year.

OR IS IT?? “As we continue to analyze the data provided by Step-Up For Students, what initially stands out is that roughly 7 in 10 new scholarship awards are going to students already enrolled in private school, at what FPI (Florida Policy Institute) estimates is a $676 million cost to the state,” the Florida Policy Institute, which strenuously opposed the voucher expansion, said in a statement Thursday. These families receive about $8,000 per year for private school tuition.

What does private school tuition cost in Florida?

The average private school tuition in Florida is $10,415 per year (2023-24).
The private elementary school average tuition cost is $10,362 per year and the private high school average is $11,528 per year. The private school with the lowest tuition cost is Hope Christian School, with a tuition of $1,500. The voucher program represents significant savings for families who have been sending their children to private schools.

The True Cost of Private School Voucher Programs by Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS)

Educating students using private school vouchers is more expensive than educating them in public schools. A 2018 study found the cost of educating a student through an Arizona private school voucher program was 75% higher than the cost of educating a public school student.

1 Another study estimated that shifting to a system of private school vouchers could raise education costs by 25% or more when accounting for students who would have attended private schools without a voucher, plus the additional administrative costs for the program, such as record keeping and monitoring.

2 A 2021 policy brief estimated that universal vouchers could increase the total public cost of education by 11-33%, amounting to $66-$203 billion per year.

3 Voucher programs become even more costly when factoring in misuse and waste. An analysis of North Carolina’s voucher program found numerous private schools received more vouchers than they had students, totaling over $2.3 million in fraudulent payments, and several others received voucher payments after they appeared to close.

4 In Utah, the state auditor found that the third-party organization that distributes vouchers spent beyond the legal limits on marketing and administrative costs.

5 In Wisconsin, voucher payments have been provided to private schools despite problems such as failure to meet financial and administrative reporting requirements and losing accreditation.

6 A state audit of Arizona’s voucher program found parents received funds after enrolling students in public schools and purchasing non-permitted items.

7 And in Florida, voucher payments were sent to private schools that falsified fire and safety inspections and had unsafe facilities.

8 Moreover, audits and oversight to address such abuse consume additional public resources.

A report examining private school voucher programs in seven states found that from fiscal years 2008 through 2019, each state dramatically increased expenditures of public funds on voucher programs, with growth in Georgia reaching 883 percent. While Florida led the pack in voucher spending levels, nearly all the states were diverting hundreds of millions of dollars to voucher programs annually by the end of the period studied.

9 Another report on voucher spending in Florida found that public school funds diverted annually to private education increased by approximately $1 billion between 2019-20 and 2022-23.

10 The state’s Empowerment Scholarship voucher programs cost $1.4 billion in the 2022-23 school year alone.

11 Additionally, nearly $1.1 billion in tax credits were offered to fund the state’s tax credit voucher program in fiscal year 2023.

12 These costs do not include the dramatic expansion to universal voucher eligibility beginning in 2023-24.

An analysis found that the North Carolina voucher program launched in 2014 has also grown significantly over the last decade. The program was initially capped at $10.8 million per year, but funding more than doubled by 2016-17. Additional funding increases approved in 2016 are expected to bring the total to $144.8 million per year by 2027-28. The program was further expanded in 2020, and the expansion could increase costs by more than $270 million over the next ten years.

Arizona’s universal voucher program was initially projected to increase costs to the state by about $65 million in fiscal year 2024.

14 The Legislature appropriated $624 million for the program in the 2024 budget, an increase of $150 million over 2023. However, updated figures released by the Governor’s Office put the estimated cost almost $320 million higher, or over $943 million in total. More than 50% of that is due to applicants who were already enrolled in private school or homeschooled. The updated figures show that 53% of all new K-12 education spending in fiscal year 2024 goes toward only 8% of Arizona students (those using vouchers).

15 This information contradicts claims by some state officials that the voucher program would save the state money.

The cost of New Hampshire’s education savings account voucher program was severely underestimated at the time of its enactment in 2021. It was projected to cost the state about $130,000, but by 2023, spending on the program was nearly $15 million.

16 Eligibility for the program was expanded in 2023, though the fiscal impact of the expansion was deemed “indeterminable” by the New Hampshire Department of Education as the number of new students who will use vouchers is unknown.

17 An independent analysis projects that the expanded voucher program could cost $48 million per year.

18 A fiscal analysis by the Florida Legislature projected that expanding the state’s Empowerment Scholarship vouchers to allow universal eligibility would lead the program to cost an additional $209 million in year one. But an independent analysis estimated that the true additional cost would be several times that number, and the total cost of the program could reach $4 billion.

19 Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) is a national campaign to ensure public funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen our nation’s public schools. Education Law Center directs the work of the PFPS campaign.

1 Dave Wells, Grand Canyon Inst., $10,700 Per Student: The Estimated Cost of Arizona’s Private School Subsidy Programs (2018), https://grandcanyoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/GCI_Policy_Private_School_Program_Costs_2018_Sept_5_2018.pdf.
2 Henry M. Levin & Cyrus E. Driver, Cost of an Educational Voucher System, 5(3) Educ. Econ. 265 (1997),
3 Robert Shand & Henry M. Levin, Estimating a Price Tag for School Vouchers, National Education Policy Center (2021), https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/voucher-costs.
4 Kris Nordstrom, New analysis shows many private schools in N.C. have more vouchers than students, North Carolina Justice Center (2023), https://www.ncjustice.org/analysis-nc-private-school-voucher-program/; Ali Ingersoll, SBI investigating fraud allegations against director of Selma private school, WRAL News (July 7, 2023), https://www.wral.com/story/sbi-investigating-fraud-allegations-against-director-of-selma-private school/20944741/.
5 Office of the State Auditor, Utah State Board of Education, Limited Review For the Year Ending June 30, 2023, Report No. 23-02 (2023), https://reporting.auditor.utah.gov/servlet/servlet.FileDownload?file=0151K000008NKuDQAW.
6 Erin Richards, State moves to remove private school from Milwaukee voucher program, Journal Sentinel (Dec. 24, 2013), https://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/state-moves-to-remove-private-school-from-milwaukee-voucher-program-b99170674z1- 237092841.html; Erin Richards, 3 voucher schools got state money after losing accreditation, Journal Sentinel (Mar. 13, 2013), https://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/three-voucher-schools-received-state-money-after-losing-accreditation-ts952un-197872781.html. 7 Office of the Auditor General, ArizonaDepartment of Education: DepartmentOversees Empowerment Scholarship Accounts ProgramSpending, but Should Strengthen itsOversight and Continue to ImproveOtherAspects of ProgramAdministration (2016), https://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/16- 107_Report.pdf.
8 Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab & Annie Martin, Florida Private Schools Get Nearly $1 Billion in State Scholarships with Little Oversight, Sentinel Finds, Orland Sentinel (Oct. 17, 2017), https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/education/os-florida-school-voucher-investigation-1018-htmlstory.html. 9 Samuel E. Abrams & Steven J. Koutsavlis, The Fiscal Consequences of Private School Vouchers, Public Funds Public Schools (2023), https://pfps.org/assets/uploads/SPLC_ELC_PFPS_2023Report_Final.pdf.
10 Mary McKillip & Norín Dollard, Florida’s Hidden Voucher Expansion: Over $1 Billion from Public Schools to Fund Private Schools, Education Law Center & Florida Policy Institute (2022), https://edlawcenter.org/assets/Florida/Florida-Hidden-Voucher-Expansion.pdf. 11 Florida Dep’t of Education, Florida Education Finance Program 2022-23, Fourth Calculation (Apr. 14, 2023),
12 Florida Dep’t of Rev., Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program Tax Credit Cap Will Increase (2022),
13 Kris Nordstrom, Legislative changes to voucher program will likely drain $272 million from NC over next decade, North Carolina Justice Center (2020), https://www.ncjustice.org/publications/legislative-changes-to-voucher-program-will-likely-drain-272-million-from-nc-over-next-decade/. 14 Fiscal note for Ariz. House Bill 2853, https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/55leg/2R/fiscal/HB2853.DOCX.pdf.
15 Office of the Governor, Governor Katie Hobbs Statement on New School Voucher Cost Projections (July 25, 2023), https://azgovernor.gov/office arizona-governor/news/2023/07/governor-katie-hobbs-statement-new-school-voucher-cost.
16 Peter Greene, The Empty and Expensive Promise of School Voucher Programs, The Progressive (April 3, 2023), https://progressive.org/public schools-advocate/empty-expensive-school-vouchers-greene-030423/.
17 New Hampshire House Bill 367, https://legiscan.com/NH/text/HB367/id/2825227/New_Hampshire-2023-HB367-Enrolled.html. 18 Reaching Higher NH, School voucher expansion could come with a $48 million price tag (May 25, 2023),
19 Education Law Center & Florida Policy Institute, The Cost of Universal Vouchers: Three Factors to Consider in Analyzing Fiscal Impacts of CS/HB1, https://edlawcenter.org/assets/Florida/FL%20HB1%20Cost%20Estimate%20Comparison.pdf.

The New Republic Checks Out Florida’s Byron Donalds

Byron Donalds hit the media spotlight when he was suggested as the conservative alternative to Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House. He is a relative newcomer to Washington D.C. In Florida, however, he and his wife Erika are well known in the conservative Christian charter school movement. Is he, as the New Republic speculates, the future star of the Florida Republican Party? You can read about him here.

I am quoted in the article. I have been following the Donalds’ for several years because they helped found the Classical Academies in Florida. It is worth knowing the people behind the attacks on Florida’s public schools. It helps to understand the strategies behind the vouchers, charters, and religious ideologies that seek to divide our communities.  Donalds offers the viewpoint of the only Black member of the Freedom Caucus.

Vouchers are Big Business in Florida

For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature. It is essentially a money management/marketing firm operating as a non-profit charity.

The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama. According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets.

Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into general revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida has just released an investigative report that details the history, financial dealings, political connections, and audit findings for Step Up for Students. The full report is available here.

Run for Cover or Stand Up for Public Education?

The direction of the Florida Senate is clear….vouchers will expand if Senator Manny Diaz Jr. has his way. His bill SB48 is, however, not just about vouchers. Yes, he would consolidate the scholarships for children with disabilities into the McKay-Gardner scholarship. Then, he would consolidate the Hope, Florida Tax Credit, and Family Empowerment Scholarship into one program. Step Up for Children, which administers the voucher programs, will only have to account for the money every three years instead of every year.

It may sound like just a bureaucratic maneuver, but the devil is in the details. Educational Savings Accounts, previously restricted to students with severe disabilities, are now to cover other students. These accounts give parents tax credits to use for services like private school tuition, tutoring, after school programs, micro schools etc. I listened to a Step Up for Students podcast where the opportunities for many new small business were being extolled. There is mention of programs for three and four-year-old children as well, and I am not certain if the qualifications for programs have been relaxed. Maybe one of you can help me out there.

How well this expanded voucher program will be funded is yet to be determined. The bill raises the cap for corporate tax credits from 50% of taxes owed to 100% for those businesses that contribute. The amount of those donations has been declining, so one might assume that the General Fund will be tapped even more. The General Fund provides money to public schools which of course means there will be less money available.

The vision of mini schools and a cafeteria of services which parents must navigate in this new vision of education is daunting. I see car pools galore, micro schools ‘not open today’, fees added on to voucher payments to make programs ‘better’ or to make them unavailable for the less well-to-do. I see parents realizing too late that the quality of a program is not what is advertised. It makes me remember a saying from my childhood: “Watch out what you wish for!”

It is curious that the Florida Constitution prohibits public funding for private schools. The Florida Supreme Court upheld this prohibition in 1996. The Florida public rejected vouchers at the ballot. But, here they are again. Let your legislators know what you think!

Miami: Is This Really Our Future?

Miami is the school choice capital!  According to this EducationNext article, 20% of Miami’s public schools are charters.  Another 20% of students are in private schools, and approximately half of those are paid for with vouchers and tax credit scholarships.  It does not stop there.  District-run choice programs now enroll 61% of public school children.  Is this a school choice dream or a nightmare?

Dade County schools tout high academic achievement.  The district receives an ‘A’ grade from the state and no failing school grades.  Of course, there are only 15 schools in the state that have an ‘F’ rating, so Miami is not unique there.  An ‘A’ school only has to earn 62% of the possible points based on state assessment test scores etc.  Over one-half of all Florida’s schools earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade.

Miami’s  fourth grade students rank above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, but there is no statistically significant difference between Duval, Hillsborough and Dade Counties’ scores.  Could it be that third grade retention pushes Florida scores up because so many fourth graders were retained?

The Dade County eighth grade NAEP scores also seem to be higher in comparison to other cities.  Yet, the average Miami-Dade score is right at the national average.  Miami’s high school graduation rate is just below the national average.  It would seem that Miami-Dade is good at hype.  The reality is quite different on the ground.

According to the report ‘Tough Choices‘, Miami is the second most segregated district in the state.  Of 460 schools in Miami, 214 are considered isolated.  They are more than 85% single race.   Miami’s lowest performing schools are overwhelmingly black.  Hispanic students also tend to be enrolled in segregated schools.

Is this what Florida is striving for?  Our schools are driven by grades which are easy to manipulate.  Yet, Florida, the third largest state in the nation, is just average in student achievement and children are increasingly separated by race and economic status.

Choice has had an impact in Miami-Dade, but it is on the lives of families and funding for school facilities.  One wonders how families manage the challenges presented by so many choices, many of which are not good choices.

*What happens when parents chose a school, but the school does not chose their child?  How do parents manage when their child’s school is located an hour’s drive away?

*What happens when children are told  that their school is not a ‘good fit’ for them.

*What happens when a parent realizes that the teachers at their charter or private school are not well qualified and tend to leave quickly?

*How does a parent console a child whose test scores do not qualify for a magnet program but his friend’s score does.  The score difference may be minimal, but the impact is not.  This is the world that broad-based choice creates.  A feeling of anxiety permeates these schools defeating a child’s willingness to learn.

Florida will expand its career and technical programs in the next legislative session. adding another level of complexity,.Finding competent teachers for these skills will be a challenge.  Even more difficult, Florida closure rate for charters is exceptionally high.

Florida 2020 Education Legislation Priorities

The 2019 legislative session focused on moving money and managing guns. The laws that emerged funded Schools of Hope vouchers for private schools and shifted funds from public schools to charter school privately owned facilities.   A lawsuit against the Schools of Hope vouchers is expected.  Funding increases for teachers and students were minimal, but teachers were allowed to carry guns.

The Florida Educational Association (FEA) reached an agreement to end a lawsuit against the ‘Best and Brightest’ bonus system that discriminated against minority and older teachers.  A signature from a federal judge will provide compensation to some teachers.

Teacher Recruitment. The focus of the 2020 legislative session may shift to teacher recruitment  and what is taught. FEA reported 4,000 teacher vacancies in the fall of 2019, and months later 2,000 positions remain unfilled.  In response to significant teacher shortages, Governor DeSantis is calling for a higher starting salary for beginning teachers. The impact may be mixed. Teacher recruitment may improve, but teacher retention may decline. New teachers may earn more than many experienced teachers.  At least half of these teachers did not graduate from college level education programs and will need mentoring and professional development that typically is not a legislative priority.

Curriculum Standards.  The Governor also called for a revision to the Florida curriculum standards that determine what is taught at each grade level. Draft standards have been released, and a summary of the results of public comment has been released. There was relatively little support indicated for eliminating the Common Core elements that have been in effect for the past ten years. More concerns were reported about the age appropriate level of standards particularly for children in K-3 but also in grade nine mathematics. As content taught in higher grades is pushed down to lower grades, the expectations for reading and math readiness for six to nine year old students become inappropriate for many children.

Where these concerns will lead the legislature is uncertain. Politically, the Governor has promised to end the Common Core skills that confuse parents. Practically, yet another change in standards not only changes what skills teachers must focus on, it also mandates that the state tests, school grades, and teacher evaluations  adapt. Teachers’ frustration are due to more than inadequate salary levels.  What are the expectations they must meet?

Adding fuel to the fire is the release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and the SAT and ACT test results for college admission. Scores are down yet again. Achievement gaps between white and minority students are higher. Choice based on competition and test scores is not working within public schools or among public, charter, or private school voucher-type programs.

Parents from all walks of life are questioning the system that pressures students to enroll in advanced courses e.g. AP English, math and science in order to improve school grades or admission to college. For a few students, these courses are a good option. For most, it results in an unrelenting pressure to chase test scores. Once they enroll in college many retake the same course in part because the passing standard of ‘3’ is too low for success in subsequent courses. Some colleges, like the University of Florida, require a ‘4’ on AP exams to earn credit.

It is a conundrum. Students need challenging courses that stimulate their interests, and Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of students who take and pass an AP exam. Yet, less than half of Florida students who take AP pass the exam with a score of ‘3’ or higher. This score represents a ‘C’ grade at the college level. The University of Florida requires at least a ‘4’ in many subjects in order to earn college credit.  Many students would prefer advanced courses geared toward alternative career options rather than the basic college track.

How will the Florida Legislature respond to the stalemate in student achievement? More of the same test-driven competition for scores does not work. Dividing funding among public, charter, and private schools is neither less expensive nor more effective.  Teacher recruitment and retention and quality facilities are an even bigger problem for charters and most private schools.

2020 legislative priorities for professional education associations are listed below.

Florida School Board Association.

Florida Association of School Administrators.

Florida Education Association.

“An incisive and devastating critique of the Bush A+ Plan”

You have to tell it like it is, especially when so many people have so much money invested in a failing education reform policy. Read the summary of the report: Twenty Years Later: Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan fails Florida’s Children posted by Diane Ravitch. Find out the hard truth about the impact of the A+ Plan on student achievement, school grades, teaching, and communities. Insist on an end to policies that seek to destroy public schools and rob children of a high quality education.