Step Up For Students President Talks Audit, Education Equity, And The Future Of School Choice

Sep 12, 2019

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Florida’s largest and oldest tax credit scholarship funding organization is on track to top $1 billion soon. Step Up For Students has 200,000 applications for scholarships from families looking to send their kids to private schools. The organization has been at the forefront of Florida’s efforts to diversify school options, often putting it at odds with critics who see it as a drain on traditional public schools. It's undergone a big expansion in the past few years, and that's come with some growing pains. But the group's President, Doug Tuthill, says choice isn't going anywhere.

Education Equity & Choice

Doug Tuthill says education continues to evolve. He says public schools cannot be everything to everyone. They're not equipped to handle issues like generational poverty and Tuthill believes that's an issue where organization's like his serve a role--addressing equity in education. 

Tuthill  envisions a solution in the creation of education savings/scholarship accounts. Those accounts would serve  low-income kids and allow them access to tutoring, after-school programs and summer camps, activities more middle, and upper-class families can more easily access. 

“Our hope is eventually to turn all our programs into these educational scholarship programs. The way it works is, money goes into an account for the family… it’s well-regulated…they have the flexibility to spend money not just on school opportunities, but on after-school programs more affluent families have access to." 

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He describes these accounts as the next phase of educational choice. A smaller version of this is already in place for students with disabilities through the Gardiner Scholarship program. It provides funding to families of students with disabilities to use for speech or occupational therapy, instructional materials, tuition at an eligible private school, and pre-paid college accounts. 

On The August 2018 Operational Audit Findings

Step Up has grown from administering only its flagship corporate tax scholarship program, to now running five of them--the Gardiner program, the Hope Scholarship for kids that are bullied, and Reading Scholarship Accounts to support kids who are struggling. 

These are all new additions, and a recent state oprational audit tagged Step Up For Students with six "findings," areas where the state says Step Up didn't properly follow procedures. Included in those findings were problems with the timely verification of family incomes, the timliness in granting awards, tracking private schools that received more than $250,000 in scholarships from the organization, time keeping of employees, and mis-spending of $280,000 that state auditors says shouldn't have been used on non-scholarship related operations. 

Tuthill is critical of the way the audit has been covered in the media, and used as what he calls, "a political weapon against us." He says many of the issues raised by state auditors were corrected long before the document came out.

"Nobody said 'oh’ all those kids got funded, but some got funded on time and others got funded earlier.’…No one was hurt. It wasn’t a big deal. We fixed those problems 18 months ago.” 

Tuthill views the issue of employee time and leave tracking as the most serious finding, and one he says went mostly ignored.