milestone-web.jpgTAMPA — “Florida families deserve the best opportunities possible for their children, and programs like the Tax Credit Scholarship help them to achieve those goals.” So said Gov. Rick Scott during the Dec. 12 celebration of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income children, a program for providing options for Florida families and savings for taxpayers. 

Scott was speaking at the Tampa Museum of Art to an annual donor appreciation dinner that included 200 corporate leaders, legislators, educators and families who participate in the program.

Officials say the scholarship, in its 11th year and financed by corporate contributions that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit from the state, is serving 50,821 students in 1,322 private schools.

Enrollment has doubled in the past four years, with an additional 10,000 students on a waiting list for 2012. This year companies gave $229 million in tax-credited contributions.

The scholarship, worth $4,335, is available only for students who meet the guidelines for free or reduced-price lunch. Officials said the average household income for students this year is $23,579 — or only 6 percent above the federal poverty level. About two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic and more than half living in single-parent households.

The state’s researcher says those choosing the scholarship were among the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left behind and, in the most recent standardized tests, scholarship students achieved the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Faith Manuel, an Ormond Beach mother who had a son at age 15, told the audience that he just completed his first semester at Florida State College in Jacksonville. “Thank you for his scholarship and for amazing opportunity to stand here before you tonight,” she said. 

Executives from several of those companies spoke about why they contribute. “By increasing access to scholarship funding for low-income students, we are helping ensure a stronger and more qualified workforce in Florida for years to come,” said Bryan Anderson, vice president of Government Relations for HCA, which has contributed $70 million to the scholarships since 2005. “This is not just another way we can touch lives. We believe it is perhaps another method for us to save lives, without the use of our physicians’ hands.”

The dinner was sponsored by John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman who is chairman of the nonprofit Step Up For Students, the state-approved scholarship funding organization that administers the Tax Credit Scholarship. The scholarship is the largest of its type in the nation. Step Up For Students is rated Four Stars by Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent charity watchdog.

The program is “delivering incredible savings for taxpayers and adding value into our state’s education system,” said Scott. “A Florida legislative committee estimates the scholarships will save $220 million over five years. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars that go right back into providing children access to a quality education.”