November 7, 2023

Sue Kingery Woltanski: Will Adding Even More Vouchers Improve SUFS’s Customer Service?

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In Florida, Stand up for Students, the organization charged with distributing voucher dollars, has been unable to keep up with the demands of the expanded program. Sue Kingery Woltanski reports on the troubles, and the unlikely solution being proposed.

In Florida, parents of students receiving FES-UA vouchers are not happy. More than two months into the school year, some recipients still have not received funding and, for many others, their funding was delayed. Funding delays across they state have pushed providers to the brink of bankruptcy. Families that have received funding, are inexplicably seeing their purchases reimbursed, not by direct deposit, but on reloadable bank gift cards, from a bank without branches in Florida, requiring parents to go to ATMs at 7-Eleven or (some) Wawas to withdraw the reimbursed cash to pay their rent or utility bills. Established FES-UA families have found newly created, seemingly random, spending caps placed on their purchases, preventing purchases of basic homeschool needs like printer paper and toner cartridges.

While many FES-UA families support school choice and appreciate the freedoms their these voucher give them, complaints about their scholarship funding organization are not new. For several years, Gardiner/FES-UA families have complained about frequent funding challenges and poor customer service at Step Up For Students (SUFS), the politically connected, scholarship funding organization (SFO) that oversee more than 99% of Florida’s voucher funding. (The only other approved SFO in Florida is AAA, who serves less than 1% of voucher recipients and, even then, contracts many of those back to SUFS). Long telephone hold times and misinformation from poorly trained call center operators are common complaints.

It appears that SUFS has been incapable of keeping up with the massive expansion of vouchers and transformation to Education Savings Accounts, which fund more than just tuition reimbursement.

What’s the way out?

How will the legislature respond to these concerns?

It appears they plan on funding even more vouchers…

Next week, the Florida Legislature is holding a special session to address multiple issues, including Hurricane Relief following Idalia, Support for Israel  and other issues related to the current conflict in the Middle East. In addition, the session will address “Additional Funding for Students with Unique Abilities.”

Specifically, the bills (HB3C and SB4C) revise the maximum number of students participating in the FES UA scholarship program this year “to be the number of students that the approved scholarship funding organizations (SFO) and the DOE determine eligible.” So the new “enrollment cap” will be whatever SUFS and the Florida Department of Education think it should be? How many is that? No one know, which is why the staff analysis says the fiscal impact is “indeterminate.

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