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Scholarship demand by the numbers

Tax-Credit students served in the current school year:


*Students who have begun applications for next year:


*FTC and Gardiner as of June 12, 2019

Florida is providing private school K-12 scholarships to roughly 120,000 economically disadvantaged students this year under two programs that constitute the largest such effort in the nation.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship was created in 2001 and serves more than 100,000 students. It is funded by corporate contributions that receive a 100 percent state tax credit. The Family Empowerment Scholarship was created in 2019 and served almost 18,000 students in first year. It is funded directly by state government, through the Florida Education Finance Program.

As a state-approved nonprofit that helps administer both programs, Step Up For Students has a bird's eye view on it all – the students, families and schools that participate; the regulations and laws that govern; the audits and test results and academic research that measure results; and the politics and sometimes contentious claims that miss the mark. We offer this site in an attempt to address claims that are both unfounded and persistent with hard data generated over nearly two decades. We take pains provide citations to independent financial evaluations, standardized test score results, independent research on college attendance and the like.

We invite you to learn the facts, and please don’t hesitate to contact our communications team with any questions you might have.

Private schools are subject to zero accountability

For years critics have argued that voucher programs divert tax dollars from public schools to “unaccountable” private schools. That’s been a popular talking point for opponents of Florida’s new Family Empowerment Scholarship:

There are no systems in place for accountability.” “ A wild west of unregulated, unaccountable voucher schools.” “ Tens of millions of public dollars each year for primarily religious private schools that have no public accountability.

In truth, voucher schools are subject to two forms of accountability: the top-down regulatory model, albeit with a lighter touch than what public schools receive; and the kind you get from the bottom-up through parental choice, something few public schools face.

Florida devotes nearly 12,000 words of regulations governing the its Tax Credit Scholarship. Among them: Schools must provide parents information about teacher qualifications; test students in grades 3-10 in reading and math on state-approved national norm referenced tests; and conduct annual financial reports if the school receives more than $250,000 from any scholarship source. Schools are also subjected to health, safety, fire and building occupancy inspections. Starting in 2019-20, new participating schools must be inspected by the DOE before accepting any scholarship students. Read more here.

In addition, parents who are dissatisfied with their private schools can vote with their feet and take their scholarship students elsewhere. That represents the most immediate and direct form of accountability: If the schools can’t deliver, they lose students and the money that follows them. That kind of accountability is in short supply in district schools, particularly in low-income areas, where parents generally can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a better school or pay tuition for a private school.

Myth Buster #1

There is zero evidence scholarships are hurting public schools academically.

Florida public schools are performing better than ever, even as the state has expanded state-supported private school scholarships and other educational choice options. Florida students now rank No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the four core tests for the National Assessment of Education Progress, once adjusted for demographics. (Source: Urban Institute.) Florida students now rank No. 3 in percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. (Source: College Board.) Florida’s graduation rate now stands at 86.1 percent, up from 52 percent in 1999. (Source: Florida Department of Education, here and here.) Education Week now ranks Florida No. 4 in K-12 Achievement, its highest ranking ever. (Source: Education Week’s Quality Counts report.) Further, a 2010 study by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio found competitive effects of the scholarship led to test score gains in public schools. (Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.)

Myth Buster #2

The constitution says free public schools are the sole means for the state to provide education in Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court claimed it did in its 2006 decision in Bush v. Holmes. However, the ruling essentially invented a prohibition where none existed and did so by misinterpreting a legal case from 1927.

The relevant language cited by the court comes from the second and third sentences of Article IX Section 1(a) of Florida’s constitution:

"It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education…"

You won’t find any language prohibiting school vouchers or requiring public schools be the sole means of education in this wording. The court’s decision, widely criticized in its day, hasn’t held up well over time. The language was evoked in two other cases (McCall v. Scott, 2017 and Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Board of Education, 2019) but it failed to persuade courts to end the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or charter schools.

The above language was never about outlawing school vouchers, but actually intended to increase public school funding and ensure a system of high-quality schools. As Justice Bell concluded in his dissent in Bush v. Holmes, “The clear purpose behind article IX is to ensure that every child in Florida has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education and to ensure access to such an education by requiring the Legislature to make adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools.  There is absolutely no evidence before this Court that this mandate is not being fulfilled.”

Myth Buster #3

Florida's constitution requires uniform schools

Florida’s constitution requires a uniform system of free public schools, but uniformity doesn’t apply to private schools. The Florida Supreme Court's 2006 ruling Bush v. Holmes, which struck down t he state's first K-12 voucher, the Opportunity Scholarship, redefined the term “uniformity” and claimed all schools must be uniform in order to receive public funds.

The relevant language is again Article IX, Section 1:

"It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education…"

In Bush v. Holmes, the court decided “uniformity” meant lock-step adherence to rules and regulations governing schools. It specifically cited school curriculum and teacher credentials as examples of uniformity.

James Dycus, writing in the Yale Law Review, argued, “the court’s cramped, simplistic definition of uniformity, unmoored from all possible sources of guidance, is impossible to justify on any terms.”

The new definition was at odds with history and legal precedent.A 1991 case decided uniformity, “gives every student an equal chance to achieve basic educational goals prescribed by the legislature.”

Justice Kogan, writing a concurring opinion in a 1993 case, stated, “Florida law now is clear that the uniformity clause will not be construed as tightly restrictive, but merely as establishing a larger framework in which a broad degree of variation is possible.”

The absence of Latin or calculus in one school, while present in another, did not make the system non-uniform. In other words, schools did not have to be identical across the state. While the Opportunity Scholarship program was invalidated, in part, because “uniformity” was redefined, the same arguments failed to strike down charter schools and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in two later cases (McCall v. Scott, 2017 and Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Board of Education, 2019).  

Myth Buster #4

Vouchers are unconstitutional in Florida because of a ban on direct and indirect aid to churches

The Florida Supreme Court has never ruled school vouchers unconstitutional on these grounds. In fact, it ignored the arguments all together in Bush v. Holmes.

The relevant constitutional language comes from Article 1, section 3:

“No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Despite this being one of the strongest “ Blaine Amendments,” in the country because it prohibits “indirect aid,” the court ignored the issue, It stated: “Because we determine that the OSP is unconstitutional as a violation of article IX, section 1(a), we find it unnecessary to address whether the OSP is a violation of the “no aid” provision in article I, section 3 of the Constitution, as held by the First District.”

A trial court did invalidate the voucher program on these grounds in August 2002 and was supported by a split 8-5 vote by the First District Court of Appeal in November 2004. It is widely believed the Florida Supreme Court ignored the issue because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled school vouchers did not violate the U.S. Constitution in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision. In fact, school choice supporters were hoping to take Holmes as a test case to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to strike down state Blaine Amendments nationwide.

Although Florida has a strong Blaine Amendment, it has largely been ignored in education and beyond. Among other examples, churches in Florida are granted tax breaks; students may use taxpayer funded scholarships to attend religiously affiliated pre-schools, K-12 schools and colleges; and state funding flows to a long list of religiously affiliated hospitals.

Myth Buster #5

The new voucher program is not unprecedented

You hear that a lot, in stories like this one, and this one, and this one. But the truth is, Florida has for years if not decades spent billions of dollars in state funding to pay for tuition at private and faith-based schools. Florida provides state-funded scholarships so students can attend private and often faith-based pre-schools ( Voluntary Prekindergarten); private and often faith-based K-12 schools ( McKay Scholarships and Gardiner Scholarships); and private and often faith-based colleges and universities (B right Futures Scholarships and Effective Access to Student Education grants, previously known as the Florida Resident Access Grant.) When the Florida Supreme Court ruled the $2.9 million Opportunity Scholarship unconstitutional in 2006, it refused to strike down the McKay Scholarship, which cost the state $119 the following year and is now a $200-million-a-year program. Like the new Family Empowerment Scholarship, the McKay Scholarship is directly funded out of the Florida Education Finance Program, which the Legislature uses to allocate money to school districts. Read more here.

Myth Buster #6

FLORIDA'S Graduation Rate Rising Rapidly Over The Last  20 years

Legal Myths

Money Myths

Academic Myths

Other Myths

Read Article

"Paramount duty" never intended as weapon against school choice

Florida's first voucher program was struck down over an amendment to increase public school spending.

Read Article

State funded scholarships then and now

The legal case overturning Florida's first voucher program was widely criticized and school choice supporters feared copycat cases that never materialized.

Read Article

The precedent of publicly funded private schools

Florida has a long history of subsidizing private school education.

Read Article

Invisible gorillas aplenty in Florida education debates

Florida has been spending money to enroll students in private school programs for decades now.

Gardiner Scholarship students served in the current school year:


McKay Scholarship
students served in the current school year:


Students using school choice options in Florida:


Florida's PreK-12 Education Landscape