Florida’s House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 7167, that includes an expansion of the nation’s most-used tax-credit scholarship program and creation of the Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program for students with special needs, similar to the school choice education savings account (ESA) model in place in Arizona only.
School Choice Tax-Credit Scholarship Expansion
Expansion: Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, the maximum scholarship amount is projected to be worth about $6,000 according to 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.
Current Program: Scholarships can be worth up to $4,800, though they may not exceed private school tuition and fees. Under current law the maximum scholarship amount will increase marginally for the 2015-16 school year and again in the 2016-17 school year. The annual limit for the amount of funds awarded is reduced by a certain percentage (25 percent to 50 percent) if the student comes from a household with an income between 200 percent and 230 percent of the federal poverty level.
Expansion: 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 qualifies the student for free and reduced-price lunch ($43,568 for a family of four in 2013-14).
- 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.)
- is eligible to enter kindergarten or first grade, or received a scholarship from an eligible scholarship funding organization or the state during the previous school year.
- a sibling of a student who is participating in the scholarship program.
*Scholarship funding organizations will be required to give preference to students whose family income is less than 185 percent of federal poverty and to students in foster care or out-of-home care.
Current Program: Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and who either are enrolled in public school or about to enter kindergarten through fifth grade are eligible. Students in foster care also qualify. If students’ household incomes rise, they can stay in the program under full scholarship as long as their family earns no more than 230 percent of the poverty level.
REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS
Expansion: Private schools that accept school choice students must maintain a surety bond or letter of credit. The amount of the surety bond or letter of credit may be adjusted quarterly to equal the amount of undisbursed funds based upon a statement from a certified public accountant.
Current Program: Private schools that accept scholarship students must comply with a number of reporting requirements. For a breakdown of those regulations, view our profile of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program here and the regulations here.
Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program
Should this bill become law, Florida would create a Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program that would allow some students with special needs an opportunity to have private school choice and customization of services, including tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, and other defined educational services. The customization aspect of the program offers similar benefits as an education savings accounts (ESAs) program.
The most striking difference between the Florida House proposal and other ESA bills this year is that parents will be reimbursed for expenditures through a nonprofit organization rather than pay directly for services through a pre-loaded debit card or pre-paid Visa card. In Florida’s version, parents would be required to pay for tuition and services out of pocket and then be reimbursed by a nonprofit organization that meets the state’s qualifications to administer the program. Unlike Arizona’s school choice ESAs, parents will not be able to roll over funds for future college expenses; however, parents can choose to purchase an advanced contract through the Stanley G. Tate Florida Prepaid College Program.
The funding would be calculated in a similar fashion as the McKay scholarship, which averaged $6,744 last year.
Students in kindergarten through fifth grade may participate in the program if they have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and are diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or spina bifida. The student must also be assigned to a matrix Support Level IV or V pursuant to Florida statute.
A public school superintendent must review and accept the results of the annual educational evaluation of a student participating. The evaluations can include the student’s work portfolio (as defined by statute), results of a nationally norm-referenced test or state test, or another agreed-upon valid measurement tool between the superintendent and the parent of the participating student. The student’s eligibility for the program can be revoked by a public school superintendent, although students would be given a one-year probationary period to remain in the program.
REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS
Educational providers must be approved by Florida’s Department of Education. If a participating private school receives more than $250,000 in funds from this program, the school must annually contract with an independent certified public accountant to produce a financial report and submit it to the scholarship funding organization that awarded the majority of the school’s funds.
UPDATE – December 10, 2015
On June 20, 2014, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 850 into law, expanding the state’s tax-credit scholarship and enacting a new school choice education savings account (ESA) program. For the most up-to-date details, including eligibility and participation data, on the tax-credit scholarship, click here. For the latest on the ESA, click here.