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School voucher delays for students with special needs are frustrating families, private schools

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Six weeks into the school year, families of special needs students still have not received school vouchers following a major expansion of the program.

Tensions are high as the families of some Florida students still have not received their private school vouchers that pay for tuition and other school-related services.

According to private school operators, the delay is affecting families of special needs students who qualified for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Unique Abilities, and its putting their schools in dire straits as they wait for funds needed to pay for crucial therapies and staff training.

A major expansion to the school voucher program earlier this year made nearly all Florida students eligible for the funds, leading to a surge in applicants across the state. In some Tampa Bay area counties, students receiving school vouchers nearly doubled, according to data from Step Up For Students, the main distributor that works with the state.

The controversial bill HB1, meant to broaden school choice, lifted income caps and expanded other scholarships for public school transportation and PEP scholarships. All told, about 243,000 received the vouchers this year, an increase of 170,000 from the previous year. A majority of the new students (69%), however, were already enrolled in private schools, but were not part of the voucher program until the expansion.

State law mandates that the voucher money is distributed within 10 days of September 1. When asked about delays to the payments, Step Up deferred to the state Department of Education.

"Florida’s school choice scholarship program is the largest scholarship program of its kind in the nation. Florida families have been excited to take part in this growing program, which has led to a record number of scholarship recipients this year," wrote the FLDOE in an email statement.

"With this tremendous growth, it remains important that the Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, conducts its due diligence and exercise the proper controls to ensure that taxpayer funds are expended both expeditiously and appropriately."

Private school operators across the state gathered on a Zoom call Wednesday night to discuss the repercussions of the lag and frustrations, namely the lack of response from both the Department of Education and Step Up.

"You're on hold for an hour to two hours before you get an answer and, when you do, it's a different answer every time you call. It's a nightmare," said Maria Preston who runs the Diverse Abilities Center for Learning and Therapy in Fort Lauderdale.

Preston said the delay is halting services such as occupational therapy and speech and language therapy for students. Teachers are not receiving safety training and crisis and intervention measures.

"All of that is on hold right now until we can pay for that," said Preston, who noted that one school on the call received an eviction notice. "A lot of us are having to take out high-interest loans and are being charged late fees for bills that can't be paid."

Steve Hicks is the president of Florida Scholarship Schools and is on the advisory council that is working with Scholarship Funding Organizations, such as Step Up For Students, on implementing the newly-expanded voucher program.

Hicks said the influx of applicants has put a strain on the new voucher system. He also cited COVID-19-related remote working as contributing to the lag.

"We're trying to beef up their platforms to try to accommodate this influx of new recipients. And it was the perfect storm," said Hicks. "Is it a bad situation? Yes. Is it intentional? No."

Hicks also runs the Center Academy, which has 11 private schools in the state, with several in Tampa, that serves students with learning differences such as ADHD and Autism. He said the academy has had to subsidize tuition and fees as well.

"It's a different funding stream and verification process," Hicks said of the Family Empowerment Scholarship, "The Department of Education has to verify the students are, in fact, qualified."

Preston, however, pushed back against the justification.

"It's a disaster in the worst way. This should not have been a surprise," said Preston. "I can put a Band-Aid on it, but not for long."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated an incorrect length in delay in voucher payments.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.
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