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After voucher payment delays, Florida lawmakers talk improvements

Man in a suit speaks at a table with a microphone and a name placard in front of him. A second man with glasses sits next to him.
The Florida Channel
Step Up For Students chairman, John Kirtley, speaks at a House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee hearing (Dec. 13, 2023).

At a House subcommittee meeting, state leaders and voucher distributors discussed how to make future voucher payments more seamless.

At the beginning of the school year, complaints about late voucher payments marred the expansion of what is now the nation's largest private school voucher program.

The 2023-2024 school year was the first in which all Florida students, regardless of income requirements, could apply for state funds for private education, home schooling and other eligible expenses. The move was part of a decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida.

This year, more than 100,000 students participated in the state's program compared to last.

And, although the program's voucher distributors expected the high demand, logistical and technical issues in the disbursement process delayed funding for many families and private school operators.

While some parents cited disruptions to their child's education, private school operators spoke about dipping into personal funds to keep services running for students.

At a House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee meeting last Wednesday, legislators asked the state's voucher distributors, Step Up for Students and AAA, what caused the problems and how, at all, could state statute be modified to make the process more seamless.

susan valdes committee hearing
The Florida Channel
Susan Valdes speaks at the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee hearing (Dec. 13, 2023).

"If we're talking about funding children — that's what I voted on — that we make every effort for it to be a seamless process wherever the child is going to," said Tampa Democratic representative Susan Valdés.

Representatives from the Florida Department of Education and voucher distributors attributed some of the blame to growing pains that have since improved and continue to be worked out.

John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that handles almost all of the state's vouchers, said most invoices have been paid out, but that "less than 1% could mean 2,000."

"We're working very diligently to get those fixed," said Kirtley, "I don't want to see any parent or any school in a difficult position."

Scholarship Funding Orgs point to complex system

Kirtley explained that the nonprofit had hired more than 200 customer service staff and specialists to prepare for the influx of applications.

The company's members also pointed to a new application platform and having to onboard more than 2,200 private schools, 300 of which were completely new to the scholarship program.

In addition, Kirtley said, compared to other states such as his home state of Iowa, Florida's universal voucher program is one of the "most complex," offering different scholarship programs with different funding sources.

Florida law also allows families to pay for eligible "instructional materials" out-of-pocket and then submit the purchase for a reimbursement — if the item or service qualifies. Other states may require parents purchase from a designated platform for those materials.

"We have a legislature and a Department of Education that is very much in favor of parents having more empowerment, more flexibility, but that makes things more challenging," said Kirtley.

He added that the vetting process for those instructional materials can take weeks as well.

"If you're granting parents a lot more flexibility and empowerment, then you want a very, very high level of accountability and oversight," he said.

Valdés also questioned scholarship funding organizations on their interpretation of eligible instructional materials. The Tampa Bay Times reported complaints had swirled earlier in the year about taxpayer funds going towards large screen TVs, gaming consoles and amusement park tickets.

Kirtley explained that those items are verified on a case-by-case basis. For example, a vision-impaired child may benefit from a larger screen for class lessons. Tickets for amusement parks, museums and cultural centers must also have an educational component, and only the child's ticket is paid for.

Patricia Froebel with AAA said they have never approved such items.

The funding organizations have until Dec. 31 to come up with an agreed upon set of purchasing guidelines for authorized use of scholarship funds.

Funding process needs to start earlier

Legislators and funding organizations agreed that families, private schools and service providers need to receive the funding earlier. Kirtley noted that the verification process for students' eligibility in the program is lengthy.

The current deadline for the distributors to receive funding from the state for the Unique Abilities scholarship is Sept. 1, while the deadline for the more general Educational Options scholarship is Aug. 1.

After Step Up receives those funds, they have 10 days to disburse.

"We really want to get those schools paid by the first week in August, so maybe that [deadline] needs to be July 1," said Kirtley, "but that's for the legislature and the department to decide."

Legislators also inquired about bringing other scholarship funding organizations, or SFOs, into the fold, as Step Up For Students currently handles about 99% of the vouchers.

Adam Emerson, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, told the subcommittee that the Department of Education is reviewing one application submitted by a group called Merit.

When asked about barriers deterring SFOs from working with the state of Florida, Emerson alluded to increasing the amount of money those groups are allowed to pay towards administrative fees.

"In other states, where there are (SFOs) that do this work, the administrative fee can vary from 3% to 10%. It's those levels that the legislature would would want to set to encourage," said Emerson.

Current state law mandates administrative fees must not exceed 3% of the total amount of all scholarships funded.

chart showing voucher participation
Florida Department of Education
A record number of students applied for the private school voucher funds this year.

Continued expansion means uncertainty for public schools

More than 370,000 students were funded as of Dec. 1, according to the DOE presentation. Last year, that number stood just under 250,000.

However, how many students will end up attending and sticking with the voucher program is fluid. And the program is also set to expand.

Legislators lifted the 41,000 cap on the Unique Abilities scholarship during a special session this school year to accommodate high demand. Next year, the program will go back to the formula that increases the cap annually by 3% of the state's total exceptional student education (ESE) enrollment, not including gifted students.

The Personalized Education Program for home-schooled students, currently capped at 20,000, will increase by 40,000 each year until 2027.

The DOE's Emerson said they've already reached that limit for this year.

With continued expansions planned, public school advocates say they are worried how much of those dollars will be siphoned away from public schools.

Damaris Allen of the nonprofit Families for Strong Public Schools said there needs to be more transparency from the state and SFOs.

"We're seeing a divestment from our public schools right now as we're investing in giving kids money to go to these private schools," said Allen.

Since income caps for the program were lifted, students who were already attending private schools were also able to apply for the voucher, which averages $8,000 per student for the Educational Options scholarship. For Unique Abilities, voucher money could exceed $10,000.

An earlier count showed that a majority of those receiving the voucher awards were already attending private schools. In addition, 44% of recipients were from families making over 400% the federal poverty level.

The Florida Policy Institute, which stands strongly against the voucher expansion, estimated that was an additional $676 million cost to the state.

The research and policy organization had previously estimated the total cost of the program to be $4 billion, which some legislators and funding organization called an overestimation.

Rep. Valdés requested that the state provide data on exactly how many state dollars were used so far in awarding vouchers.

As part of the program, funds from the Federal Tax Credit program — which are funded through corporate donations — are exhausted before dipping into the Florida Education Finance Program state funds.

Emerson said those numbers would be provided after the meeting.

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