Record number of students to attend private schools using state vouchers

Florida lawmakers recently removed income requirements for state scholarships

WINTER PARK, Fla. – As classes resumed this week at Chesterton Academy of Orlando, most of the students who attend the private, faith-based “classical” high school are receiving financial assistance through state-supported scholarships commonly known as vouchers.

“Over 80% of our students would never have been able to even apply if there weren’t state scholarships, if there wasn’t state assistance,” said Jim Hickel, Chesterton Academy of Orlando’s headmaster. “They just couldn’t afford it.”

Over the past two decades, the nonprofit Step Up for Students has administered most of Florida’s school choice scholarships, which were originally designated for low-income families.

This year, the Florida legislature removed income requirements to apply for state scholarships, making all Florida students eligible for financial support to attend private schools. Families can apply for state scholarships here.

The awards, which vary by county, average $7,700 per year.

The scholarships cover most of the $8,500 tuition at Chesterton Academy of Orlando, which is also supported by private donations.

“We wouldn’t be able to afford to send our children to a school like this if it wasn’t for the state scholarship program,” said Brandon Vogt, the founder of Chesterton Academy of Orlando who is also the father of an incoming freshman.

“We’re a fairly middle-class family,” Vogt said. “But we were right over the income threshold that the previous rules allowed for the scholarships. But now that they’ve removed the income thresholds, our family, and lots of other middle-class families, working-class families, now receive an enormous amount of support from the state to attend schools like this.”

Before the income limits were lifted, the school’s headmaster said families with multiple children often had to make difficult choices.

“Either none of them go to private school, or [parents must choose] which one of them,” Hickel said. “Most families with a single income just can’t pull it off.”

Critics of school choice vouchers argue the scholarships could take money away from public schools, which they argue are held to different educational, oversight and accountability standards.

Scholarship opponents also believe the elimination of income requirements will provide state assistance to wealthy families that could already afford private schooling for their children.

Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, said his organization continues to primarily serve lower income families.

“The average family income in our program is still probably going to be closer to $40,000 to $45,000 a year,” Tuthill said. “More affluent families are able to buy houses in certain neighborhoods and sort of pick the schools based on where they buy their houses.”

During the 2022-23 school year, when income limits were still in place, Step Up for Students awarded 260,851 scholarships worth a little more than $2 billion.

Nearly 40% of those awards were Florida Tax Credit scholarships, which are funded by private donations. Family Empowerment Scholarships, which include a subset of scholarships designated for students with unique abilities, are funded by the state.

So far 372,652 students have applied for scholarships for the 2023-24 school year, a nearly 43% increase from the previous year.

Officials with Step Up for Students said they will not know the total dollar amount awarded this school year until enrollments stabilize later this fall.

The organization also noted that it typically sees a growth in applications each year, so the current increase in applications is not fully attributable to the change in state law eliminating income limits.

“The legislature did a great job of funding these programs,” Tuthill said. “There’s plenty of funds available for the kids, and so we’re not looking to run out of funds anytime soon. We’re good.”

If funding in future years were to be limited, Tuthill notes that state law will give scholarship priority to lower income applicants.

The challenge for families seeking private education this school year may be in finding available classroom space.

“I am hearing for some families that a lot of schools are full,” Tuthill said. “It’s hard to find a seat in the school that’s available for their family and that’s a good fit. That’s not true for everybody. But I do think we’re going to have a couple of years where demand is going to outpace supply until the supply side can build more school seats.”

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.