Florida Auditor General releases annual report on Step Up For Students

Denim Edwards, pictured here as he signs a national letter of intent to attend the U.S. Naval Academy as mom Michelle Witherspoon watches, is one of thousands of Florida students who attends a private school with assistance from a scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

For the seventh year in a row, the Florida Auditor General reported no major findings in its annual operational audit of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit scholarship funding organization that administers scholarships for low-income students, bullied students, and those with special needs.

The 2020-21 operational audit examined the period between March 2020 and February 2021, which covers both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

During this period, Step Up For Students paid $610.1 million in Florida Tax Credit Scholarships (FTC); $338.9 million for the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES); $134 million for the Gardiner Scholarship; $2.5 million for the Hope Scholarship; and $2.1 million for the Reading Scholarship.

Funds for the FTC and Hope Scholarship were raised through private contributions, while funds for the FES, Gardiner and Reading programs were funded through state appropriations.

As with past audits, student accounts were randomly selected to determine if Step Up For Students followed administrative rules regarding student eligibility. Payments from the Reading Scholarship and Gardiner Scholarship also were examined to determine if reimbursements were eligible under the law. Auditors did not report any errors regarding student or reimbursement eligibility.

Auditors questioned staff access to sensitive personal information that Step Up For Students collects to determine student eligibility, but the report did not note any instances of unauthorized disclosure of this information.

In its reply to the auditor general’s office, the organization replied that students often return to the program, and staff members who review scholarship applications for student eligibility must have access to historical data. Step Up For Students stated that it is working on an upgrade to the application database that will limit the number of staff members who can review historical data.

Prior to the audit, Step Up for Students had implemented a new policy to reduce sensitive historical data. Auditors verified that the organization had deleted all documents submitted during the scholarship application process through the 2014-15 school year.

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