The genuine surge in scholarship applications in Florida

FTC enrollment growthA Florida House committee debate this morning about a new Tax Credit Scholarship bill included some fair questions, obvious skepticism and dueling numbers about how many students want in. One reason for the confusion might be this little-known fact: Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that processes the applications, has stopped keeping waiting lists.

That may sound like an alarming development, but the reason is not what you might think. The people who process applications at Step Up, which publishes this blog, have become so overwhelmed in recent years that they no longer wanted to give low-income families false hope. They concluded that the main reason for the waiting list was mostly for show, and they wanted no part of that.

So when we are asked by lawmakers or reporters or state officials about a waiting list, we try our best to respond by describing the accelerated pace of applications. That trend is clear.

In 2012-13, the cap limit of $229 million allowed Step Up to serve 51,075 students. That year, it was receiving so many applications that it shut off newcomers beginning on Aug. 3, a couple of weeks before school started. And it’s worth noting here that scholarship parents are no different than the adults who are being asked to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act: they often wait until the last minute. Even so, 87,540 students had already started an application.

For the current school year, 2013-14, the cap limit of $286 million has allowed Step Up to serve 59,765 low-income students. But applications were coming in so fast last spring that the processing team decided to stop taking them on June 28, about as month-and-a-half before school started. Even so, 94,104 students had already started.

That number from June is  the origin of the 34,000 “waiting list” that has been asserted many times during the current debate. In reality, it’s not a waiting list, but it’s a powerful indication of demand.

A more compelling gauge, though, may be the applications that are being received right now. A new school year starts in less than five months, applications are in full swing, and the current cap limit of $358 million should allow Step Up to serve about 68,000 students. As of today, 79,915 students have already started an application. So unless there is a precipitous drop in applications, Step Up will shut it down early again – maybe earlier than last year – so as not to create false hope among those who waited too long.

This trend suggests that tens of thousands of students will again be shut out.

The extreme skeptics will question whether Step Up is reporting these numbers faithfully and accurately. But one outside check is enrollment itself. The state Department of Education verifies and reports student enrollment in every quarter and year-end, and the chart attached to this post is pointed distinctly upward. It shows that enrollment is increasing precisely as fast as the caps allow, which is an independent source of data that reinforces what Step Up is reporting in applications.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Doug Tuthill

Thanks Jon. For readers who want more specifics, here are some details on how our scholarship award process works. It’s complicated.

State law requires that we award scholarships on a first come, first serve basis with renewal families having priority. We define first come as when all necessary supporting documents have been submitted (e.g., tax returns, pay stubs, divorce papers, et cetera), and not when the initial application is entered online.

How many scholarships we award is tied to how much our scholarships are worth, and this value changes yearly since it’s tied to the annual state funding for district students. So we must wait until the Florida legislature passes the state’s annual budget each spring before adding this information into our calculations.

How many scholarships we can award each year is also controlled by how many scholarship dollars we raise, and when this money is paid. We have a legislatively imposed cap on how much money we can raise, but this doesn’t mean we’ll raise this much money, nor does it mean we’ll raise it in time for the start of school in August.

The final variables we consider are our projected utilization and attrition rates. The utilization rate is how many students awarded scholarships will actually use them once school starts, and the attrition rate is how many students will start the school year on scholarship and then drop off. Because K-12 education is experiencing so much change, we’ve had quite a bit of variation in our utilization and attrition rates over the last five years, which complicates our ability to predict how these rates will perform every fall.

Beginning in April, we’ll start having regular meetings to determine when to turnoff our online application system and stop accepting applications. By mid-May, we’ll be reviewing our application data once or twice a day as we discuss when to stop accepting applications, and sometime in early June we’ll stop accepting applications from new families.

Since renewal families have priority, we’ll keep accepting and processing their applications even after school starts in the fall. But we tell these late applying renewal families that they may be put on a waiting list and awarded a scholarship only when new spots open up. Last year, we had about 4,000 qualified renewal families on a waiting list when school started, and all these families eventually received a scholarship by December 1.

For new families who apply and get shut out, or who try to apply in the summer after we’ve already stopped accepting applications, we invite them to sign up for a “contact” list and let them know we’ll notify them as soon as the application for next school year opens up. This year, we ended up with about 30,000 students on this contact list.

Inside our organization, we refer to the list of qualified renewal families waiting for a scholarship spot to open up as our “waiting list,” and we refer to the 30,000 students waiting for the new season to open up as our “contact list,” although when the media ask us how many students are waiting for scholarship spots in the fall we often say 34,000, since this is the total number of students who were potentially denied scholarships at the beginning of the school year because of the cap. But this 34,000 does not include students who wanted a scholarship but were not able to apply because we had stopped accepting applications and who never signed up for our contact list. Based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I think this last group numbers about 16,000, which is why I’ve been telling the media that without a cap we’d be serving an additional 50,000 students.

No other Florida school choice program (e.g., magnet schools, charter schools, dual enrollment, McKay Scholarships, VPK, online learning) operates under a state mandated cap, so they don’t need to manage this level of complexity. I’m looking forward to the day when our program is much simpler also.

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