By Victor Skinner

TALAHASSEE, Fla. – The Sunshine State’s tax credit scholarship program is exploding in popularity, and additional funding this year should ensure its continued growth.

Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program grew by about 27 percent, to 51,075 students, and has already issued more than 60,000 private school vouchers for next year, the News Service of Florida reports.

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“Even after serving 51,075 students this past year, there was a waiting list of about 10,000 students,” Jon East, administrator of the voucher program, told the news service.

The scholarship program allows businesses to receive tax credits for money donated to Step Up for Students, the organization that manages the scholarship program. Step Up for Students uses the funds to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools.

The explosive growth over the last year is the product of special legislation passed in 2012 that increased the budget for the program by $10.3 million more than called for in the funding formula, to a total of $229 million, according to the news service.

Step Up for Students’ budget is $286.2 million for the upcoming school year, and the group has already given out more than 60,000 vouchers, East said.

The massive waiting list for the program, and the increased funding from the state, is a clear sign the public wants more choice in public education, and Step Up for Students is filling that need. The data comes from a recent report by the state Department of Education that also shows students using the vouchers are likely the ones who require the most academic assistance.

“The majority of students who use the program are minorities,” the news service reports. “Almost 34.7 percent of the students receiving vouchers are Latinos, while 33.1 percent are African American and just shy of 25 percent are white.”

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While it’s obvious the voucher program is changing the lives of students who have traditionally been underserved by the state’s public schools, the state’s teachers union remains focused on what the program means for the union.

“The state has certainly encouraged the growth of the corporate voucher program, despite the fact that these schools are largely unregulated and the state doesn’t gauge their effectiveness compared to public schools,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers.

We believe Pudlow’s dour attitude is the result of the realization that the government school union monopoly is no longer the only game in town, and Florida parents who now have a choice are increasingly opting for private schools.

Fewer students in traditional government schools means less demand for unionized teachers, and therefore less dues revenue for the teachers union. Oh well. That’s the union’s problem.

Students and parents across the state should be ecstatic that more among them will have access to excellent private schools they couldn’t previously afford.

We suspect that if public demand remains strong for vouchers, traditional government schools will be forced to innovate and improve instruction to retain students. That scenario gives parents real power in education.