Two years ago the non-profit group that oversees Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students cut off applications in December.
Last year the cut off came in October.
This year Step Up for Students ran out of space on May 22 — after just seven weeks of enrollment. Last year the program provided 34,600 scholarship — up 5,700 students from the year before.
Why? A viral marketing campaign among parents, said Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill.
“Parents are very aggressive about seeking out information,” Tuthill said, noting his group does little scholarship marketing. “They have their own social network.”
Scholarship parents — who average just under $26,000 a year in household income — are talking about the program at Medicaid-accepting physicians offices, at church and in welfare offices, Tuthill said.
The scholarship program grants businesses a tax credit if they fund private school scholarships. Last year Step Up For Students raised $140 million, which allowed the group to raise up to $175 million this year. Tuthill expects to meet that goal, which would raise the tax credit limit to $218.7 million next year.
Tuthill said parents surveyed say the most important factor in choosing a school is safety, both physical safety of their children but also insulating them from bad community influences and the too-common intersection of schools, police and courts. Parents want a psychological space where their child feels comfortable, he said.
“They understand education is essential…it’s a very basic human instinct,” he said. The larger school choice and accountability debate is “so disconnected from the reality on the ground.”