What is a scholarship funding organization? 8 On Your Side looks into its issues and impacts

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — As 8 On Your Side previously reported, the director of Higher Learning Advantage Academy is blaming Step Up for Students for her school’s financial issues.

“It’s been a rough, rough, rough couple of months for us because our funding system is a dead end,” said Nancy Seymore, the academy’s director.

She admits unpaid invoices are stacking up and teachers are leaving.

Step Up for Students is one of two scholarship funding organizations, or SFOs in the state. SFOs are all about school choice giving parents the opportunity and the resources to choose the best educational environment for their child.

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“Every day is a struggle,” she said.

8 On Your Side reached out to Step Up. A representative said the school could expect its quarterly payment this month as scheduled. It also said the organization has fully funded 44 of 50 students for this school year.

We did some more digging. Records show the property owners, Lakeland Town Center filed a complaint for eviction against Higher Learning in July 2023, which is before Step Up began seeing its own set of issues.

“This problem didn’t start until September 2023, so anything that proceeded that really had nothing to do with the distribution of funds from the SFOs,” said Steve Hicks, the Florida Coalition of Scholarship Schools President.

Hicks said the coalition represents more than 2,000 private schools in the state that participate in SFOs, including Step Up.

“Specifically, Step Up for Students this has been a challenging year no question about it,” said Hicks.

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Hicks said Step Up faced the perfect storm of challenges in September when schools and families first received a late payment. Last year, the state passed House Bill 1. The measure opened up scholarship eligibility to every student in the state, regardless of family income.

“You have this organization that was in the midst of updating their operating system and overnight, then they were moving from 200,000 to 400,000 kids,” said Hicks.

The operating system was overloaded, rollouts were late, on top of some families entering their information incorrectly. Hicks also has a personal stake in this. He leads the Center Academy, which oversees 11 private special-needs schools and one charter school. Five of them are in Tampa Bay. He said he’s personally seen Step Up taking the right steps to resolve its issues.

“So everybody is trying to do their best to make sure that the students get qualified,” he said. “The schools get paid this SFOs are in alignment with what the state laws are.”

Step up sent this statement about Higher Learning:

“All schools that receive scholarship payments of $250,000 or more in any school year are required to have a third-party accounting firm examine their books under certain agreed-upon procedures, to ensure that the school is using the money properly. If a school doesn’t submit this report, the FLDOE may not allow them to continue in the program.

According to our records, Step Up reported to the DOE on Oct. 27, 2023 that Higher Learning Advantage Academy had not submitted a report for the 2022-2023 school year and had not responded to our request for one.  The report was due Sept. 15, 2023.

Schools are required to notify the DOE when they close. We immediately notify the DOE when we are informed of a school closing.

When we are notified of a school closure, we advise them to withdraw any remaining students (or sometimes, in extreme cases, we withdraw them ourselves if the school is not responsive). This prevents any additional invoices from being generated. We offer to help families who wish their students to remain on scholarship find eligible private schools they can transfer to.”

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