Mary Josephine Walsh, the principal at Mountaineer’s School of Autism, says she had such a hard time getting school vouchers over the last two months that she took out nearly $300,000 in loans, went without a paycheck for eight weeks and maxed out her personal credit cards to keep her school’s operations afloat.
“My situation is not isolated,” Walsh told the Florida Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Monday. “I am one of many schools.”
To her knowledge, at least 30 private schools in Florida have not been paid in a timely manner by Step Up for Students, the nonprofit organization that administers the vast majority of voucher applications in the state, Walsh told the Times/Herald in an interview. Seventeen of those schools are on the brink of closure, said Walsh, who founded the Florida Coalition for Private Schools two months ago to keep tabs on voucher payments.
The issue became a focal point during this week’s special session as Florida lawmakers debated a proposal to expand eligibility for school vouchers for children with special needs. The proposal does not address the complaints from parents and school operators who say they aren’t getting funding in a timely manner, but state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledged that something needs to be done to address the issue.
It is unclear exactly what state lawmakers will do to fix the problem, but there was consensus in both the Senate and House that it will be an issue for the 2024 legislative session, which starts in January.
“We are absolutely going to look at how we can make this more efficient and how we can get money out faster for people,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, told reporters on Tuesday.
Renner did not provide specifics about what he would like to see done, but he suggested looking at whether it would benefit the state to have additional nonprofit organizations administer vouchers. Overall, Renner said Step Up for Students had done a good job at responding to the program’s major growth, but he said he was not “completely satisfied.”
Renner added that whatever changes are made to the program, the system should always be designed for accountability to ensure state funds are not misappropriated.
Dealing with the program’s growth has posed “unique” challenges, Scott Kent, a spokesperson with Step Up for Students, said on Tuesday.
“The growth in the programs this year alone was larger than the next biggest program in the country, and the complexity of Florida’s programs are also greater than those in other states,” he said, noting that Step Up for Students would “welcome any organization to the state that believe they can serve the families well.”
Scott said the group will continue to “work tirelessly” until every issue raised by families and school operators is solved.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has also been working with the Florida Department of Education and Step Up for Students to figure out how to address the issues facing families and school operators who have complained about payment delays.
“At this point, we are working to determine if additional legislative fixes are needed, or if these are implementation issues that can be handled under the existing law,” Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said in an email Monday.
Betta said Step Up for Students has fulfilled the vast majority of invoices and that while some remained outstanding, the nonprofit was working to reduce the length of time in which they respond to families and school operators.
“Out of roughly 2,300 private schools that are participating in the scholarship programs this year, we are still working with a very small number to ensure that all payments are made this week,” Kent, with Step Up for Students, said.
High-interest loans and mounting debt
For Walsh, the principal at Mountaineer’s School of Autism, the funding delays have left her with another problem: debt.
She says she had to take out two separate loans in October, one to keep up with payroll and operations, and another to keep up with monthly loan payments. She also told the Senate panel on Monday that she had struggled to pay her home mortgage because she had maxed out her personal credit cards and had had to go without a paycheck for eight weeks.
The funding delays impacted 90% of the school’s budget, she said. Her school has 48 students — 43 of them have special needs and they take vouchers, she said.
“Schools are on the verge of closing and vulnerable children will be hurt because of the gross mismanagement of Step up for Students,” Walsh told the Times/Herald in an interview Monday.
Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, said the issue has been ongoing for a while and noted that he has personally loaned money to schools.
“My wife and I often loan money to the schools just to be able to make payroll,” Wright said. “It is concerning that there are so many children that are falling through the cracks and I am really glad we are bringing this up.”
For the upcoming legislative session, Walsh wants the Legislature to establish a grant program to help private schools that had to take out high-interest loans because of the payment delays.
“We’d just want to get back on budget,” she said.