Florida Governor Signs Nation’s Second ESAs, Expands Tax-Credit Scholarships
Today Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed SB 850, a bill that creates the nation’s second education savings account program. The bill also expands key funding and eligibility aspects of the Florida’s tax-credit scholarships, the nation’s largest private school choice program (in terms of enrollment).
Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program
Florida created the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, which will allow students with special needs an opportunity to receive an account funded by the state and administered by an approved scholarship-funding organization. Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. The customization aspect of the program offers similar benefits as an education savings account (ESA) program, like Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.
Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk.
REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS
Approved educational providers must be approved by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, a health care practitioner, or by the state’s Department of Education.
Private schools participating in the program must:
- be located in the state of Florida;
- comply with all requirements for private schools participating in the state school choice scholarship programs;
- provide to the eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organization all documentation required for the student’s participation, including the private school’s and student’s fee schedules;
- be academically accountable to the parent for meeting the educational needs of the student by:
- at a minimum, annually providing to the parent a written explanation of the student’s progress;
- annually administering or making provision for students participating in the program in grades three through 10 to take one of the nationally norm-referenced tests identified by the Department of Education or the statewide assessments. Students with disabilities for whom standardized testing is not appropriate are exempt from this requirement. A participating private school shall report a student’s scores to the parent;
- employ or contract with teachers who have regular and direct contact with each student receiving a scholarship under this section at the school’s physical location;
- annually contract with an independent certified public accountant to perform the agreed-upon procedures and produce a report of the results to the scholarship-funding organization if the private school receives more than $250,000 in funds from scholarships awarded under this section in the 2014-15 state fiscal year or state fiscal year thereafter.
Changes to Tax-Credit Scholarships
Step Up For Students, a scholarship-funding organization in Florida that administers the program. The annual limit for the amount of funds awarded will be reduced by a certain percentage (12 percent to 50 percent) if the student comes from a household with an income between 200 percent and 260 percent of the federal poverty level.
Before expansion: Tax-credit scholarships were worth up to $4,800, though they could not exceed private school tuition and fees. Under current law, the maximum scholarship amount increased marginally for the 2015-16 school year and again in the 2016-17 school year. The annual limit for the amount of funds awarded were reduced by a certain percentage (25 percent to 50 percent) if the student came from a household with an income between 200 percent and 230 percent of the federal poverty level.
Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, a student is eligible for a Florida tax-credit scholarship if he or she meets one of the following criteria:
- has a household income that does not exceed 260 percent above the federal poverty level;
- is currently placed in foster care or out-of-home care (these students may apply for a scholarship at any time);
- a sibling of a student who is participating in the scholarship program, if the student resides in the same household as the sibling;
- previously received a scholarship from an eligible scholarship-funding organization.
Students will no longer be required to spend the prior year in public school before they can participate in the scholarship program.
Before expansion: Students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch ($43,568 for a family of four in 2013-14) and who either were enrolled in public school or about to enter kindergarten through fifth grade were eligible. Students in foster care also qualified. If parents’ household incomes increased, their children could stay in the program under full scholarship as long as their family earned no more than 230 percent of the poverty level.
REGULATION ON PROVIDERS
If a parent of a scholarship student decides to have their child take a state assessment, participating private schools are responsible for transporting students to the assessment site in a manner agreed to by the parent.
Private schools must report the scores of participating students on nationally norm-referenced tests or statewide assessments to the Learning System Institute at the Florida State University, which will annually report to the state’s Department of Education on the student performance of participating students. The Institute’s report must include student performance for each participating private school in which at least 51 percent of the total enrolled students participated in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in the prior school year.