Private school generosity provides relief for families on scholarship wait list

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By Scott Kent and Donna Winchester

Some people just can’t take “no” for an answer.

Among them are administrators at hundreds of Florida private schools that are providing free and reduced tuition to thousands of students on the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

A case in point: Sunrise Academy in Orange City, a preK-12 school that enrolls 157 students. Founder and president Yahayra Marte, who describes Sunrise’s philosophy as “leave no one behind, like the military,” has waived tuition for 42 students. She’s reduced fees for another 15 students.

Marte estimates that Sunrise has taken a $312,000 financial hit, which has necessitated sacrifice – the school had to postpone a scheduled pay increase for its teachers. While the response to assisting wait-list students has been “unbelievable, extraordinary,” Marte is hoping she can make up the shortfall next year.

Enrollment in the FTC, the nation’s largest scholarship program for economically disadvantaged K-12 students, dropped this fall for the first time in 14 years. (Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers the scholarship, hosts this blog.) The Florida Department of Education reported that as of November, the scholarship was serving 99,453 students in 1,799 private schools. That’s 7,505 fewer than the same period last year, and 8,645 fewer than last year’s total.

The decline was caused by a slowdown in corporate contributions and has led to a gap between scholarship supply and family demand. Under the scholarship law, companies that contribute to approved nonprofit scholarship organizations receive a 100 percent credit against six different state taxes. From 2010 to 2017, tax-credited contributions grew annually by about 25 percent. Last year, that rate fell to 16 percent.

This school year, through December, contributions have increased by only 4 percent, matching the pace at which the values of the scholarships rose. As a result, nearly 13,000 students landed on a waiting list because there weren’t enough funded scholarships to go around. And that figure likely understates the unmet demand.

Step Up For Students had received 170,096 scholarship applications before shutting down the online application system June 29. Step Up president Doug Tuthill projects the nonprofit would have served about 70,000 more students if it had the funds.

Many private schools that accept FTC students, like Sunrise Academy, have stepped into the breach. Of 433 FTC-eligible schools who responded to a Step Up For Students survey, 234 said they have waived tuition for students on the waiting list, and 271 said they have provided reduced tuition; many are doing both.

The schools come in all sizes, from Masters Preparatory School in Hialeah with 245 students, 90 of whom are wait-list students who have received free or reduced tuition, to Pensacola Junior Academy with 33 students, six of whom have been accommodated financially.

Overall, the survey shows that 1,276 waiting list students have had their tuition waived; 1,507 have benefitted from reduced tuition. That’s more than 2,700 scholarship-eligible students who are attending a school of choice they otherwise would not be attending.

Many schools are making an enormous financial sacrifice, in some cases forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Most view the commitment to students not in monetary terms, but as a mission.

“It’s my heart’s desire to see them do well,” said Donna Lee Buckner, founder and principal at Lakeland Institute for Learning. “That’s the bottom line and the motivation for it all.”

The school, which serves special needs students with cognitive impairments and those with limited proficiency in English, has an enrollment of 70. Buckner waived tuition for 40 wait-list students and offered reduced tuition for 25 others this year. She estimates the school is subsidizing between $150,000 and $200,000 in tuition.

“If we didn’t do this, it would be a hardship for most of these parents,” Buckner said. “I do ask them to donate a certain number of hours back to the school to help us offset the cost of some of our services.”

Help could be on the way. At a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech Monday at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to work with lawmakers to find a solution to the problem.

“I would like to eliminate the wait list so that every parent has the ability to make these choices,” he said. “And that will be a priority for me in this next legislative session.”

DeSantis has allies in the Legislature.

When asked at a luncheon Wednesday at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee about the education agenda for this year’s session, Senate Education Committee Chairman Manny Diaz, R-Miami, referenced the governor’s desire to ensure that “no child at that poverty level should be on a waitlist” adding, “Philosophically, we are aligned. The stars are aligned, and we may never see this again.”

Diaz’s counterpart in the House, Education Committee Chairman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, also a guest at the luncheon, said that lawmakers would accommodate students not currently being served “at a minimum.”

Which should be good news for schools going above and beyond to assist waitlist families but whose efforts can be sustained for only so long.

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