Family Empowerment Scholarship
Early education reforms, more mask issues, 70% of Lee online learners urged to return to class, and more
Florida Tax Credit Scholarship enrollment by grade level, 2020-21
Official enrollment figures for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship are in. According to the September 2020 quarterly report, released this week by the Florida Department of Education, 100,008 students enrolled in the program for the 2020-21 school year.
The program, which relies on private corporate donations that receive 100 percent state tax credits, is available to low-income and working-class students in Florida. Approximately 74% of scholarship students are non-white, and 55% live in single-parent households. The average annual family income of scholarship students is about $33,000.
As with past years, the majority of students (58,535) are enrolled in grades K-5, where tuition costs are often the lowest.
This year, 1,899 private schools across 64 Florida counties enrolled students in the FTC program. Of those schools, 66% identified as a religious school. Miami-Dade County enrolled the most students – 23,344. Calhoun, Holmes and Union counties had no participating private schools, while Calhoun and Liberty counties had no participating students.
This year’s September enrollment figure is 22 students fewer than the September 2019 report (which was 100,030). At the same time, enrollment in a similar program, the Florida Empowerment Scholarship, has doubled. According to a Florida Department of Education spokesperson, the FES program increased from fewer than 18,000 students at the end of 2019-20, its first year, to 36,161 students this year.
Like the FTC, the FES is geared toward low-income and working-class students. The FES is funded directly by the state and the household income threshold is roughly $10,000 higher. This year, a family of four could qualify for the FES program if its household income was lower than $78,600, whereas the FTC program caps eligibility at $68,120 for a family of four.
Editor’s note: This column by Shannon Dolly, principal at Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg, first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times. Thirty-eight students at Mount Moriah attend on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and eight attend on a Family Empowerment Scholarship.
As a single mother who raised a daughter with special needs, and as the principal of a private school in St. Petersburg with mostly low-income students, I understand the obstacles many families face finding the best learning environment for their children.
COVID-19 has only added to those struggles, for them and for many more families who suddenly have found their options limited. Now more than ever, they need choices in education.
Growing up, I never thought about alternatives to traditional public schools. My mother was a public school administrator, and I went through the public school system. But when I had my daughter, Taylor, I felt I had to do better for her.
I tried to get her into a district magnet school, but we were shut out of our top five picks. The only alternative was to send my 5-year-old on a 45-minute one-way bus ride from the southern part of Pinellas County to a school in the northern part.
That was out of the question.
That’s when I learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, which enabled me to afford tuition at a private school closer to home that best met Taylor’s needs. The scholarship carried her from kindergarten through eighth grade.
She then received a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs that allowed her to attend high school at LiFT Academy in Seminole. She graduated in 2018. Her academic success would not have been possible without the scholarships providing us with real choices.
I’ve also seen the value of choice from the other side.
Since 2015, I’ve been principal at Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, a middle school with 38 students on the tax credit scholarship and eight on the similar Family Empowerment Scholarship. Mount Moriah offers these children what they can’t find in other schools, and the scholarship provides them the means to attain it.
That has become especially important during the pandemic. When schools shut down because of the virus, in-person learning was denied to those who wanted — and needed — it. Many families struggled with online learning from home. Parents became frustrated with their lack of options.
At Mount Moriah, we have parents who want their kids in school, and others who don’t. So, we have offered them three preferences: Some students attend the brick-and-mortar classroom full time; some do online learning full time; and some do a combination of both.
Our parents love that they have a voice, that we listened to that voice, and that we accommodated that voice.
The pandemic has opened parents’ eyes to the virtue of choice and has made them understand they don’t have to settle for what is handed to them. Now they’re forced to think outside the box, to ask: What else can I do? In these unusual times, they are more willing to look for options beyond what has been considered normal. Recent polls show that parents increasingly want more choices in their children’s education.
The pandemic has demonstrated that families must have multiple options available because they never know when they might need them. It also has reaffirmed that education choice should not be a privilege only for those who can afford it. It’s a right — for everyone.