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Legislation to expand eligibility, maximize choice in K-12 scholarship programs moves to Senate floor

Legislation to expand eligibility, maximize choice in K-12 scholarship programs moves to Senate floor
Posted at 2:33 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 15:45:28-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — The Senate Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) passed Senate Bill 48, Educational Scholarship Programs, by Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. (R-Hialeah) on Thursday.

“School choice is here to stay. 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, I’m glad we are streamlining eligibility and funding so that parents have a better idea of their full range of options,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby). “This comprehensive school choice legislation removes barriers that exist under some of our current programs by enabling children to start out in the school their parents think is best. I’m very grateful to Senator Diaz for his work to make sure we can take it up on the floor early in session.”

The legislation 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. Having passed three committees of reference, the bill is now available for consideration on the Senate floor.

“Parents are the best advocates for their children, and now more than ever parents are seeking freedom from a one-size-fits-all system to look for resources and tools to uniquely tailor learning for their child’s individual needs,” said Senator Diaz. “This legislation makes school choice a reality for more Florida families by using funds Florida taxpayers have already dedicated to education. The newly consolidated scholarship programs will operate as Education Savings Accounts to provide families with even more flexibility to choose the programs, services, and curriculum that will foster the most beneficial education for their children.”

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 of the consolidated 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 percent of the calculation to cover administrative costs.

Student Eligibility

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 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

McKay-Gardiner: The bill establishes a growth cap formula at a 1% increase (annually) of the state’s total public school exceptional student education student enrollment, not including gifted students. For example, this formula caps annual growth at approximately 4,000 students, which is expected to fully accommodate the current growth in both programs, based on past year-to-year growth.

FES: The bill establishes a new cap for the 2021-2022 school year of 175,000 students, which includes 2020-2021 FES, FTC and Hope scholarship recipients.

A sibling of a McKay-Gardiner scholarship may receive an FES scholarship if the student resides in the same household and attends the same school as the sibling. 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.

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