Parents and school administrators are still experiencing delays with the rollout of Florida’s expanded school choice voucher program, which combined several scholarship funding organizations (SFOs) into two entities during the 2022-2023 school year.
The bill removed previous restrictions that limited eligibility for families, based on their income level.
The scholarship money can be used for expenses, including private school tuition and fees, transportation to an out-of-district public school, home-schooling costs, instructional materials, standardized testing, tutoring, and Advanced Placement exams.
Since 2001, Florida has offered a number of different state-funded and tax-credit school-choice vouchers.
Vouchers were expanded in 2014 with the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), later renamed the Gardiner Scholarship, which created an education savings account for children with special needs.
Originally, the scholarships were handled by at least eight different non-profit SFOs in the state.
During the 2022–2023 school year, the Florida Legislature voted to combine the scholarships into two entities.
Step Up for Students (SUFS), which handles scholarships for special needs and low-income students, and AAA Scholarship Foundations, which administers scholarships for children without qualified disabilities.
However, the merger has not been without hiccups.
Mary Josephine Walsh is the founder of the Coalition for Private Schools and Mountaineer’s School for Autism and Academy, a 10-year-old private school for children with autism located in West Palm Beach, Florida.
She was inspired to open Mountaineer’s when she realized traditional schools were ill-equipped to educate her son, who is deaf and has non-verbal autism.
Ms. Walsh wanted speech, occupational, and behavior therapy for her son and decided to leave her job as a registered nurse to take her son’s education into her own hands.
“I realized at that moment that he was going to fall through the cracks of the system because it wasn't individually tailored. And I was not going to let my son be a victim of a broken system.
"It works for a lot of kids, but not everyone. And that's why small, specialized private schools are so essential to catching those who fall through the cracks and giving them a chance,” Ms. Walsh said.
Before the state’s merger of the special needs scholarships into SUFS, she never experienced a delay in funds disbursement and only had to submit a single application for her son.
Now, not only must Ms. Walsh reapply for her son yearly, but she said funds delays have been so severe she was forced to empty her savings account, max out her credit cards, and take out high-interest loans just to cover operating costs for Mountaineer’s Academy, which also relies on state scholarship funds.
The loan interest is “really crushing our budget ... I don't how this is gonna work,” she said.
Ms. Walsh spoke in Tallahassee last week at the three-day legislative special session on Israel support, Iranian sanctions, hurricane relief funding, and expansion of the list of students eligible for school choice scholarships.
After emotional testimony about her mountain of debt, Ms. Walsh received funding for quarter one of the 2023-2024 school year, which she said was due Sept. 1.
Each semester is split into two quarters, with quarter one beginning in August or September, depending on when the school begins fall classes.
Ms. Walsh spoke with lawmakers last week to “pull back the band-aid and expose the situation so that they could have the information and the knowledge of what's going on.”
When the funding does come through, she explained, it sometimes arrives in odd increments, so she must call SUFS' helpline.
“If I'm supposed to get $4,000 for this child. Why did they get $178?”
That time she said she was told second-quarter funds were delayed because of a glitch with the online invoicing system.
Ms. Walsh said schools should have been able to send out invoices on Nov. 1, but the software issues delayed invoicing until Nov. 13.
When she reaches out to SUFS to address her concerns, Ms. Walsh said, she receives a variety of explanations for the delays.
“They'll say, ‘Well, we didn't have the correct tax ID, or we didn't have the correct bank account.’
"And these are schools that have been well established or not just having opened up overnight. These are people with Step Up accounts for more than five years. The accounts haven't changed. The tax ID hasn't changed."
SUFS cites "human error," she said.
Patrick Gibbons, a spokesperson of SUFS, told The Epoch Times that Mountaineer's Academy has received second-quarter payments for 43 of its 46 students as of Nov. 17.
He said SUFS is working quickly to fund the remaining three students.
"Regarding her billings for services, we show that 98 percent of the dollar amount of the invoices we have received and are in process of payment have been received by us since Nov. 9. We usually process payment in about two weeks," Mr. Gibbons said.
Jody Robertson, the principal of Countryside Christian School in Gainesville, Florida, defended SUFS, including its online application process.
“So I know what it's like as a parent. And the initial application process can be a little bit tedious at times ... but the reapplication process is really not that hard. And my thoughts on it is, if someone's giving me money for my child to be educated, I'm not gonna fuss about having to reapply each year,” he said.
However, Ms. Walsh said the application process can be difficult for special-needs families where parents or caregivers also suffer from disabilities, or cannot afford the computers needed to complete the online application.
For Mr. Robertson, many of the delays and roadblocks with SUFS come down to technology issues.
“I do know that with everything coming under Step Up or AAA now, they had to build a new platform to be able to do all of the things that it needed to do to accommodate the changes that came with HB one, which basically opened up parental choice for many, many more families—basically anyone,” he said.
Ms. Walsh admits that SUFS is overwhelmed by a massive system of students they inherited when legislators sunsetted the previous SFOs.
SUFS is doing everything it can to get the money to parents and schools as quickly as possible, Mr. Robertson said.
“Yes, the new platform has its glitches, as does anything. But when I get an email from the Step Up finance department at two o'clock in the morning, or on a Saturday, telling me that funds are coming, or I'm getting a remittance report coming, I know that they're working around the clock to get those funds to the schools,” he said.
SUFS is an ally to parents and administrators, said Mr. Robertson. "Even when it doesn't seem like it's coming very fast. I think that they're doing everything they can to get it to us.”
He experienced a one-week delay with quarter-one funding, he said and admitted there were glitches with invoicing for quarter two.
And, like Ms. Walsh, Mr. Robertson said he was not able to send an invoice until Nov. 13.
SUFS is aware of parents’ and school administrators’ concerns.
“Step Up by no means minimizes the impact on families and schools who were awaiting funding. Florida is implementing the largest education choice program in the nation. The growth in the programs this year alone was larger than the next biggest program in the country," said Mr. Gibbons.
"The process will improve with every quarter as initial onboarding issues are resolved. We are working daily to improve the experience for families and schools.”
While SUFS is unaware of any parents taking out high-interest loans to offset delayed payments, he said.
“We are caught up on first-quarter payments to schools, with an exception of less than one percent where we are still working with schools to verify things like enrollment and exit dates for withdrawn students and similar detailed issues, which is normal.
"Last week, we started the funding process for the second quarter, and we have funded over 99 percent of student accounts with the exception of the Personalized Education Program (PEP), which is for students not enrolled full-time in schools.
"Those students will be funded this week. Schools began approving invoices for their students on Monday [Nov. 13].”
To get back on track financially, Ms. Walsh is starting a GoFundMe campaign while she continues to assist the families within her coalition of private schools.
She worries about the parents who have spoken about their mental health crises and what can be done to pay back the interest from the loans needed to keep parents and schools afloat while SUFS fixes the problems.
For Mr. Robertson, the issues with SUFS are the result of a “perfect storm” where SUFS was given the workload of at least half a dozen other SFOs overnight when the legislature sunsetted the other scholarship non-profits.
“In this world we live in, everybody expects perfection," he said. "Nothing's perfect. And everybody makes mistakes.”
The Florida Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.