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Voucher payments for private schools late, incomplete amid expansion, new online system

ORANGE PARK, Fl. – As the number of families using private school vouchers has exploded in Florida, ”Step Up For Students,” the nonprofit tasked with distributing the money, has been struggling to get it into the hands of families and schools this fall.

It’s left teachers unpaid and administrators and parents panicked.

Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz has acknowledged that the greater demand for vouchers this year placed added pressure on the system.

At Faith Christian Academy in Orange Park, school director Angela Schminke wears a lot of hats. This year, she’s served as detective, bank, and debt collector after the scholarship money her students depend on didn’t arrive for weeks.

For a while, she worried the school would have to close.

She said the majority of the school’s 44 students, which range from first to 12th grades, have special needs, such as issues with comprehension or dyslexia.

She said 100% of the students are on scholarships, with the money coming from Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit collects funds from the Florida Department of Education and donors for private and homeschool vouchers. Corporations can donate to Step Up in lieu of paying state taxes.

According to tax filings, Step Up For Students managed a revenue of more than $821 million from 2021 to 2022.

This year, its role was expanded even further, providing vouchers to an additional 100,000 students after the implementation of H.B. 1, according to a spokesperson. The law expands the number of students eligible for vouchers. Now, families at any income level can receive them.

Schminke said enrollment at her school increased by more than 50%, but none of the funding for the first quarter of the school year arrived on time. Step Up deposited most of the money last week.

“I can say that we’re missing approximately $25,000,” Schminke said Thursday. “It’s terrible. We’re still taking money out of our retirement.”

Faith Christian Academy teachers like Summer Johns have been working without pay. She said she was shocked when the money from Step Up didn’t arrive on schedule, and she’s hoping to get paid within the next few weeks.

Schminke was hoping to get clarity about the missing money on a Zoom call with Step Up reps Thursday, but that didn’t happen.

“Do you see why Step Up is so frustrating? Because we ask the questions, and we’re not getting the answers,” she said.

Friday, a spokesperson from Step Up said funding has been sent for more than 90% of the students across each of the different scholarship programs. Tuesday, they said they’re making progress, but the funds have yet to be deposited for some 10,000 students.

That spokesperson also said the issue isn’t a lack of money, it’s clerical mistakes on paperwork submitted on a new online platform. They said they provided schools training on the new system and updated them on the new law, telling News4JAX, “Florida is implementing the largest education choice program in the nation.”

“When we ask the questions, sometimes we’re not given the right answer, or we’re given multiple different answers as to why you’re not getting it today…’but you’ll get it tomorrow,’ or ‘be patient with us. We’re sorry for the inconvenience,’” Schminke said. “It’s been a crazy ride.”

Schminke said she was paid in full on Monday after News4JAX reached out to Step Up.

“I’m so excited and so happy,” Schminke said. “The amount of relief can’t be put into words. I just hope the second quarter goes way smoother.”

A spokesperson for Step Up said they are working hard every day to improve the experience for families and schools.

Statement from Step Up to News4JAX sent Tuesday:

This year, all scholarships are Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). So student accounts must be funded first, then schools invoice Step Up For Students (SUFS), then SUFS sends payment to schools.

The accounts of all 145,000 Florida Tax Credit (FTC) students (including 15,000 students in the new Personalized Education Program) have been funded. Of the FTC student accounts that have been properly invoiced by schools, funding for roughly 94% has been sent to schools. The remaining 6% have either only recently been invoiced or have issues such as improper banking information, missing tax forms, students on more than one program or on VPK, and other issues.

The accounts of roughly 98% of the 85,000 students who have been awarded Family Empowerment Scholarships for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA) awarded by SUFS have been funded. The remaining student accounts have issues that are currently being researched and resolved. Roughly half of UA students are enrolled in private schools. SUFS has received invoices for approximately 42,000 of them, and expects to have at funds for at least 94% of those students sent to schools by the end of this week. The remaining students have issues such as those described above, which are being researched and resolved.

The accounts of over 93% of students awarded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO) by SUFS have been funded. As of today, SUFS has received 93,000 invoices for the roughly 126,000 EO students. Funding to schools for these students has begun, and by the end of this week funds for 90,000 of these students will have been sent to schools. Receipt by school usually takes one to two days. We are waiting on the remainder of the invoices from schools and will process them promptly upon receipt. As with the other programs, there are about 5% of students where issues need to be researched further.

Scott Kent, Step Up for Students director of strategic communications

Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4JAX – All rights reserved.

https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/2023/10/03/its-been-a-crazy-ride-voucher-payments-for-private-schools-late-incomplete-amid-expansion-new-online-system/ Voucher payments for private schools late, incomplete amid expansion, new online system

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