This week, the leadership of the Florida Senate threw its support behind a proposal to expand school choice options.
On Thursday, state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, filed a bill “which provides for expanded student eligibility and parental choice for K-12 scholarship programs that serve students with unique abilities and students from lower-income families.”
State Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Tribly, threw its support behind the proposal.
“Over the last two decades the response to Florida’s school choice programs has been overwhelmingly positive. However, right now we have a pretty confusing system of scholarship programs with various eligibility and funding mechanisms. This patchwork system is largely the result of years of legal challenges from school choice opponents who have attempted to thwart every effort to actually give parents a say in how their children are educated,” said Simpson on Thursday.
“School choice is here to stay, and Florida does it better than anyone. In recent months the ongoing pandemic has even further highlighted the important responsibility of every parent to choose the best learning environment for their child, and with well over 100,000 students currently utilizing the variety of scholarship programs we have available, it’s about time we streamlined eligibility and funding so that parents have a clear idea of their options,” Simpson added.
“Parents are the best advocates for their children, and now more than ever before parents are seeking freedom from a one-size-fits-all system and looking for resources and tools to uniquely tailor learning to meet their child’s individual needs,” said Diaz. “Parents of all children, regardless of income, should be empowered to choose the educational environment that is best for their child. Using funds Florida taxpayers have already dedicated to education, this legislation consolidates our scholarship programs to make it clear what options are available to parents, and expands eligibility to provide more options to more low-income families and families with a child with unique abilities.”
Diaz’s office offered the following information about the bill:
Scholarship Program Consolidation
- The legislation merges the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program to create the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program, and expands the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) to incorporate the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) and the Hope Scholarship Program.
- Under the bill, both the McKay-Gardiner and FES programs are funded through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP).
- The bill increases the scholarship award from 95 percent to 97.5 percent of the per-student funding calculation for a student’s grade level, school district, and (if applicable) level of service, with quarterly disbursements. The McKay-Gardiner Scholarship and FES programs are established as Educational Savings Accounts, with additional authorized uses of scholarship funds. A Scholarship Funding Organization may use up to 2.5% of the calculation to cover administrative costs.
- McKay-Gardiner: The bill combines the current eligibility requirements for the Gardiner and McKay Scholarship Programs to include each of the following: Students turning three or four years old before September 1 and K-12 students with a diagnosis of a defined disability, an Individual Education Plan, or a 504 Accommodation Plan. Students who turn three years old after September 1 may also be eligible on or after their third birthday if program funds are available.
- FES: The legislation retains FES and FTC eligibility relating to the direct certification list, a student in foster care, or a participant’s sibling, and adds eligibility for Hope Scholarship students. The bill modifies the 185 percent, 260 percent, and 300 percent income steps in FES and FTC to one income level of 300 percent of poverty (with income escalator). The legislation also removes the prior public enrollment requirement and clarifies that a student receiving an award maintains eligibility until high school graduation or age 21 regardless of income.
Enrollment Cap/Priority in Awards:
- McKay-Gardiner: The bill establishes a new growth cap formula of 50,000 initial awards plus a 7 percent annual scholarship growth rate and modifies the Gardiner scholarship priority order to a student who:
- Received a McKay or Gardiner Scholarship in 2020-2021 and renews a McKay-Gardiner Scholarship thereafter.
- Is retained on a waitlist.
- Meets minimum eligibility requirements.
- FES: The bill maintains the current annual growth rate of 1 percent of the public school population, and includes prior year FTC and Hope scholarship recipients in the FES outside of the growth cap.
Establishes a new scholarship priority order:
- FTC and Hope recipients and FES renewals.
- Is retained on a waitlist.
- Foster care, sibling, or victim of incident.
- Student household income does not exceed 185 percent poverty.
- Student household income does not exceed 300% poverty.
To better accommodate virtual education opportunities, the bill allows a private virtual school with at least one administrative office located in the state to meet the physical location requirement for private schools participating in the state school choice scholarship program.
State Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, are cosponsoring the proposal.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org.