Nation’s first public school reading voucher opens for applications Monday

Livi Stanford

The nation’s first voucher for public school students struggling with reading opens for applications Monday

Starting Monday, Florida families can apply for the first voucher in the nation aimed at helping public elementary school students who struggle with reading. Already, more than 2,400 have signed up on an interest list.

Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that publishes this blog, is the only state-approved scholarship organization that has chosen to administer the program. After conducting a beta test last week, Step Up is turning on its online application for all comers on Monday. Families can apply through the homepage.

The scholarship program is fueled by a longstanding academic concern: Students who can’t read by the end of third grade face major hurdles in their academic success, according to educators and studies. The Children’s Reading Foundation, a national nonprofit that includes community-based reading chapters, estimates that 74 percent of such struggling readers will not be able to catch up.

In Florida this past year, 44 percent of third- and fourth-grade students – a total of 191,220 – failed to pass the state English Language Arts Assessment.

The Reading Scholarship Account, approved by the State Legislature this spring, gives parents access to an account worth $500 to pay for fees and tuition related to part-time tutoring, summer and after school literacy programs, reading curriculum and instructional materials.

The first-year appropriation is $9.7 million, which can serve more than 19,000 students. The scholarships are awarded on a first-come first-served basis.

To qualify for the scholarship, a student must be in third through fifth grade, enrolled in a Florida public school, and have scored below a Level 3 on the English Language Arts assessment this past spring. Priority under the law is given to students who are designated as “English Language Learners.”

A growing list of community groups and school districts have inquired about providing reading services to scholarship students, and the law requires that individuals wanting to offer part-time tutoring services must hold a valid teaching certificate.

A 2014 MRDC study of a multi-state reading tutor program showed promising results for struggling students. MRDC found that, after only one year, the “Reading Partners” program helped students in second-to-fifth grades improve in three different measures of reading proficiency.

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