TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The largest expansion of Florida’s school voucher program was passed back in March. Now, tens of thousands of students across the state are taking part.

Some are criticizing the price tag and questioning where the money is spent.

Florida Policy Institute Kids Count Director Norín Dollard said in a briefing Wednesday morning, “We are concerned with the sheer volume of scholarships awarded.”

The Florida Policy Institute is now calling on the Florida Department of Education, sending a letter requesting more transparency on the effects of HB 1.

You can read the letter in its entirety below.

House Bill 1 was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March.
Regardless of income any Florida K-12 student now has access to scholarships for private schooling.
The expansion also covers homeschooled students allowing state funds to be added to an education savings account which parents can use toward a number of school-related purchases.

You can see exactly how that money can be spent below.

Looking at where that money goes via the purchasing guide above has drawn up some criticism.

“They can use these funds to purchase things like paddleboards, kayaks, 55-inch TVs,” Families for Strong Public Schools Executive Director Damaris Allen said. “Do we really want our tax dollars being used so people can buy fun things for their families that may or may not have educational value?”

We took that claim to Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students.

That is the organization that contracts with the state to manage most of these scholarship programs. He said he and his team have to approve every dime that is spent.

“You need to look at the needs of individual children,” Tuthill explained. “We have a lot of kids for example have visual disabilities, partially blind.”

“It’s easier to criticize a family for buying a larger monitor or screen, but when the child is partially blind, I think most people would agree that’s a good idea,” Tuthill added. “Your viewers should know, we’re very careful when reviewing the needs of each child and making sure what we’re funding meets the educational needs of that child.”

Not only do they control how their money is spent, but the timeline too.

“We don’t want people to spend the money just to spend it,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure they spend it effectively and efficiently, so we allow them to roll the money over from one year to the next, but they have to spend some money over a two-year period otherwise the scholarship is taken away and given back to the state.”

Dollard is continuing to request more transparency from the Florida Department of Education.

“The Florida Policy Institute and its 31 partner organizations call of the commissioner of education to be more forthcoming with his plans to address the potential for cost overruns and sustainability of the scholarships,” she said.

8 On Your Side reached out to the FDOE. Their spokeswoman, Cailey Myers, provided us with the following statement:

“The Florida Policy Institute’s concerns are unfounded. The Department is ensuring the scholarship programs are implemented in accordance with HB 1 and the funding provided in the General Appropriations Act.

In addition, their claims that the Department has not been transparent about the scholarship process is ridiculous. The Department published a press release on August 18 detailing that over 407,000 students had been awarded a scholarship. The release celebrated the record number of students applying to participate in the state scholarship programs and the families who will be positively impacted. Feigning outrage that the specific data has not been made public less than month after school started is disingenuous. It takes time to process comprehensive reports, and our data will be available on our website when it is complete.

As part of HB 1, the Department of Education is dedicated to providing increased access and flexibility for state scholarship programs to meet the needs of all families, including those providing personalized education programs. We want families to be able to choose the best educational path for their children, and FPI should support Florida’s number one ranked education system instead of playing political games.”

As for Step Up for Students, Tuthill said he expects to give out 80,000 to 85,000 more vouchers than in years past.

“I think this is just one of many options,” he said. “We’re not in the business of promoting private school vs district school, we just want to make sure every family has the equal opportunity to provide the right education for each child.”

Below is a county-by-county breakdown from Step Up for Students of how vouchers in the Tampa Bay Area.

Citrus            625            423            297              82           1,427
Hardee               48               28               38              22               136
Hernando         1,117            785            826            137           2,865
Highlands            656            454            235            106           1,451
Hillsborough         7,285         8,364         4,671            939         21,259
Manatee         1,229         1,549         1,404            291           4,473
Pasco         2,209         2,175         2,254            423           7,061
Pinellas         4,727         5,704         2,879            413         13,723
Polk         5,157         4,006         3,091            585         12,839
Sarasota         1,170         1,445            885            314           3,814

FTC = Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
FES-EO = Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Opportunities
FES-UA = Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities
PEP = Personalized Education Program.

The organization noted the ‘FTC’ and ‘FESEO’ numbers are counts of enrolled students and ‘FESUA’ and ‘PEP’ counts are awarded scholarships.

‘Awarded’ does not mean they will use the scholarship within the two-year timeline Tuthill explained.

You can find answers to commonly asked questions regarding Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship below.

Click here for information on how to apply.