Step Up For Children Scholarships Save Nearly $40 Million for Taxpayers

Dec 18, 2008

Senator Don Gaetz--December 17, 2008

Tallahassee, Florida-  A government watchdog agency reported today that a school choice initiative sponsored by Senator Don Gaetz is saving a cash-strapped state budget $38.9 million this year.

The Step Up for Children Scholarship program allows poverty-level students to attend private schools using scholarships financed with corporate income tax credits.  Legislation substantially expanding the program was introduced and passed earlier this year thanks to a bipartisan coalition led by Gaetz (R-Niceville).

The state saves $1.49 for every dollar invested in the program, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability (OPPAGA).  The savings comes from the positive difference between the higher cost which taxpayers would have incurred in public schools and the lower cost of attending a private school chosen by the family.

“Step Up for Children produces a savings for taxpayers because educational services purchased from private schools chosen by families are thousands of dollars less per student than the cost of a public school education,” Gaetz said.  “This program leverages the physical and teaching resources of cooperating private schools to help save tax dollars.”

The more students who participate in the program the greater the savings, according to OPPAGA.  The OPPAGA study validates previous cost-savings findings published by Florida TaxWatch and the LeRoy Collins Institute for Public Policy at Florida State University.

“Step Up For Children provides a triple benefit,” Gaetz said.  “The essence of the program is giving families a choice of schools, which this program certainly accomplishes.  Every student who participates saves taxpayer dollars at a time when the state education budget is strained as never before.  Finally, public schools don’t have to build classrooms and hire teachers for the thousands of students who attend private schools using these scholarships.  That’s a significant advantage given the mandates of the class size amendment.”

To participate, a student must qualify for free or reduced lunch and have either attended public school the previous year, be a returning Step Up recipient, or be a new kindergartener or first grader.  Forty percent of children in the program are African-American and thirty percent are Hispanic.  The average household income of participating families is $23,000.

Each student receives a $3,950 scholarship to be applied toward tuition at over 800 participating private schools in 64 counties.  Typically, families still come out of pocket for about $1,000 above and beyond the scholarship amount. 

During the 2007-2008 school year, 21,493 students benefitted.  Senator Gaetz’s legislation increased enrollment in the program by an additional 5,000 students for 2008-2009 and succeeding years and increased the allowable tax credit contributions by corporations from $88 million to $118 million. 

Senator Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee), now the Senate Democratic Leader, was the first of nineteen senators of both parties who joined as co-sponsors in supporting Gaetz’s bill.  Sponsored in the House by Representative Trey Traviesa, the legislation passed both chambers overwhelmingly.

Among the strongest supporters of Step Up For Children Scholarships is former US Congresswoman Carrie Meek (D-Miami) who heads a group that promotes the school choice initiative in South Florida.

To read the full OPPAGA report, click here