The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a national exodus from public schools, with parents opting for private schools, homeschooling, and other alternative K-12 education methods. It also gave rise to support for school choice, an umbrella term for policies that allow families to send their students to alternatives to public schools. These can include charter schools, private schools, magnet school, learning pods, and homeschooling costs.
School choice isn’t limited to simply allowing kids to attend schools they aren’t assigned to based on zip codes. It includes letting parents subsidize the costs of the alternatives with the taxpayer funds that normally would’ve financed their child’s education at a public school. This is usually in the form of individual tax credits, scholarships, school vouchers, and education savings accounts (ESAs).
That may be why so many people have moved to Florida since 2020. Florida is considered one of the best states for school choice along with Arizona, which has adopted universal school choice, meaning all students have access to public funds for alternatives. The Heritage Foundation ranked Florida the best state for education in its Educational Freedom Report Card and No. 3 for school choice.
Florida has four school choice scholarships, each of which has certain conditions that students have to meet in order to be taken advantage of. Not every student in the state can have public education funding follow them out of their assigned district school. The scholarships are administered by scholarship-funding organizations, known as SFOs. The largest SFO is Step Up for Students, which funds all four programs.
Navigating the different options can be difficult for Florida parents who may not understand the various intricacies, so here is a basic layout of each of the main options.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
Florida’s oldest and most popular school choice scholarship is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, known as the FTC Scholarship. It was launched in 2001, and EdChoice estimates that more than 85,000 students utilized FTC Scholarships in the 2021-2022 school year.
Students are eligible if they come from households that make less than 3.75 times the federal poverty level (roughly $111,000 for a family of four) have siblings in their household are current recipients, are in foster care, or are dependents of active-duty military.
The average scholarship award is $6,815. SFOs give the award directly to parents for tuition and fees or transportation if they decide to send their child to a different public school.
Florida taxpayers can contribute to eligible SFOs and receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for taxes like the corporate income tax, insurance premium tax, and the excise tax.
Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options
Florida’s only voucher program is the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, sometimes called the Educational Opportunity Voucher.
It was created in 2019 to increase school choice access for those who aren’t able to access the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Students are eligible if they come from households that make less than 3.75 times the federal poverty level (roughly $111,000 for a family of four), receive food assistance like SNAP, are in foster care, have a parent in the military, or have a sibling who is already participating in the program.
As a voucher program, students are awarded a certain amount of dollars that are redeemable at participating schools. The average voucher amount awarded is $7,300, with nearly 75,000 students participating. So if a student who qualifies wants to attend a private school with a tuition of $10,000 and receives a $7,500 voucher, the family would present the voucher to the school and only have to pay $2,500 out of pocket.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities
A school choice education savings account (ESA) is an account that receives public funds to be used on educational expenses like tuition, tutoring, and even learning materials. It’s different from a Coverdell ESA or 529 savings plan because families don’t deposit their own funds into the account; the government does.
Florida’s only ESA is the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), often referred to as the Unique Abilities ESA. It is different from the FES-EO because it’s for students with disabilities or special needs and is an ESA rather than a voucher.
Students are eligible if they are diagnosed with certain disabilities, have some sort of impairment, or have an Individualized Education Plan, known as an IEP. These IEPs are developed by teachers, parents, and school administrators to measure the progress of the special needs students.
Eligible disabilities include down syndrome, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, rare diseases, and more. Eligible impairments include conditions like deafness, blindness, brain injuries, or developmental issues.
In 2022, it integrated the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, which was given to 30,000 students with special needs who attend private schools. It was also known as the Gardiner Scholarship Program before 2021.
Florida’s other tax-credit scholarship is the Hope Scholarship. It’s the first of its kind program because it is targeted to students who are victims of bullying.
Students can be from any income background; they only have to be victims of violence, intimidation, hazing, or sexual assault where the incidences occured on their public school property or at a school-affiliated activity, including on the bus or at a bus stop.
There are two ways the scholarship can be used. The first is like the FTC scholarship. Families receive a scholarship (the average Hope Scholarship is $7,700) that is sent directly to the alternative school they want to send their child to.
The other option is to attend a different public school, one the child isn’t assigned to based on their zip code. The scholarship can be used to cover at least $750 in transportation costs.
The scholarship has a unique funding mechanism. When someone buys a car in Florida, they can have up to $105 of their sales tax be directed to funding Hope Scholarships.
Overall, Florida is on the right track to maintain its position as the nation’s leader for school choice. It should follow Arizona and adopt universal school choice, making it possible for all students to use the education option that best suits their needs. After all, the purpose of public education funds is to fund the student’s education — not the education system.