State audit: Ineligible kids get private-school scholarships anyway

Some Florida students who weren’t eligible for private-school scholarships got the money anyway, due to “human errors” and outdated information used to calculate awards, a new state audit shows.

The nonprofit Step Up for Students, Inc., acknowledged concerns and made a variety of fixes, in part saying that “appropriate corrective actions were taken with individual team members,” according to responses provided in the audit released earlier this month by Florida’s Auditor General office.

Step Up provides hundreds of millions of dollars in private-school scholarships to low-income and working-class families annually, using factors such as household income and federal poverty levels to determine whether students are eligible for the awards.

The auditor general report concluded that Step Up “over awarded” scholarships by about $420,000 for 248 students in 2015-16 and 2016-17. In other words, “If done correctly, those kids would have received $420,000 less over the two-year period,” said Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager at Step Up.

Another 32 students receiving scholarships were “under awarded” by $53,589, according to the auditor general report.

Together, the 280 students represent a tiny fraction of applicants because some 209,000 students got scholarships over those two years. “These are really small error rates,” Gibbons said.

The nonprofit made corrections for the 2016-17 year, including recouping the overages in scholarship amounts and making whole the scholarships that were under awarded.

The audit included several examples of problems in the calculations.

For example, for 11 scholarship recipients, household income exceeded poverty levels and the scholarship money totaled $35,184 more “than what should have been awarded.”

In another case, 6 recipients got $25,504 when they should not have been eligible based on income guidelines. In addition, the organization incorrectly handled self-employment income and wages in the calculations, allowing six recipients to get $29,247 in scholarships, though they were not considered eligible.

Also, the nonprofit did not verify information from three applicants, but still provided awards totaling $17,098.  “Step Up For Student agrees these issues were due to human error.”

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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