Enrollment in Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program continues to see an increase, with participation numbers for the 2016-17 school year reaching an all-time high.
The most recent data from Step Up For Students, the largest nonprofit organization to distribute the scholarships in the state, shows more than 92,000 students currently enrolled in the program. That number is not only an increase of almost 13,500 students from last year, but is also one of the largest increases seen since the beginning of the program. The program has seen an increase of almost 80,000 students since the 2005-06 school year.
Most participating students live in the largest school districts in the state, with over 25% coming from Miami-Dade county.
Thousands of students have participated in the program, which offers scholarship money to low-income students to help them afford attending better-performing schools, since 2002. Many students opt to attend private religious schools, writes Leslie Postal for The Orlando Sentinel.
Step Up For Students believes the increase in participation is the result of two factors: parents beginning to agree with the idea of school choice for their children, and an increase in state-set fundraising for the program.
"Florida is a national leader in expanding educational opportunity, and the latest numbers again show that parents appreciate the power to access additional options that can best serve their children," said Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill.
Assistant director of policy and public affairs for Step Up For Students Ron Matus added that the dramatic increase in enrollment seen this year can be attributed to the additional money being put into the program.
"Our state-set fundraising cap increased to $559 million this year, up from $447 million last year," said Matus in an email. "So the higher cap means we can raise more in contributions, which means more money for scholarships," he continued.
Under state law, the cap will increase by 25% each year that the program meets 90% of the prior year's cap.
Meanwhile, the program has seen its share of controversy recently, as a Florida Education Association lawsuit sought to put an end to it. According to the lawsuit, the program is unconstitutional and takes away funding from the public school system in the state, which it says is greatly needed.
The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this month by an appeals court, who said the plaintiffs did not succeed in proving that public school funding had in fact decreased as a direct result of the program, reports Thomas St. Meyer for The Pensacola News Journal.
In the end, Allison Nielson writes for Sunshine State News that the lawsuit may have actually helped the program by giving media attention that caused more students and families who qualify for the program to find out about it. Nielson added that a source for the newspaper said the lawsuit may have been a significant reason for the enrollment increase this year.
It is expected that the program will continue to receive last-minute enrollments.
The Gardiner Scholarship Program, which began in the state three years ago, has also seen an increase in enrollment. More than 5,800 students enrolled in the program for the current school year, an increase of over 1,000 students from last year. The program pays for private school and additional services for students with disabilities.