This tax-credit scholarship program was enacted and launched in 2001 to serve students from low-income households. Of America’s school choice programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is one of the largest in terms of student participation. Learn more about it on this page, including eligibility, funding, regulations, legal history and more.
Florida provides a tax credit on corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for donations to scholarship-funding organizations (SFOs), nonprofits that provide scholarships for low-income students and children in foster care and offer funds for transportation to public schools outside a child’s district. Businesses get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for SFO contributions, with total credits capped at $559.1 million. Unused credits can be carried forward to the next fiscal year.
Scholarships can be worth up to 96 percent of the state’s unweighted Fulltime Equivalency (FTE) funding, though they may not exceed private school tuition and fees. Transportation grants for public schools are worth up to $500.
Students in households earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level ($66,950 for a family of four in 2019–20) are eligible for scholarships. Students who qualify under 200 percent of poverty ($51,500 for a family of four) are eligible for full scholarships worth $6,519 to $7,111, depending on grade level. Partial scholarships are available with scholarship values reduced by 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. First priority is given to renewal students and to new students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program ($47,638 for a family of four in 2019–20). Eligibility recently opened to siblings of current scholarship recipients—as long as they live in the same household—and the income limit for previous scholarship recipients was removed. Additionally, students placed in foster care or out-of-home care, as well as dependents of active-duty military, are now able to apply for a scholarship at any time.
Already the country’s largest private school choice program in terms of participating students, the Florida legislature expanded student eligibility for its tax-credit scholarship program in 2014. Beginning in the 2016–17 academic year, the legislature loosened the household income requirements to include more middle-income families, and students are no longer required to spend their prior year in public school before participating in the program. The program’s available funding is capped, but fortunately, that cap will increase by 25 percent if 90 percent of the cap is reached. Likewise, the per-student funding cap on scholarships is allowed to grow over time. On school requirements, the program requires schools to have state approval and administer a nationally norm referenced test to scholarship students, but avoids unnecessary regulations
Fla. Stat. §§ 1002.395 and 1002.421
In August 2014, the Florida Education Association (FEA) and several other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to challenge the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program as vouchers, which had previously been ruled unconstitutional under the Florida state constitution (Bush v. Holmes, 2006). In May 2015, the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, Florida, dismissed the original FEA lawsuit after finding that plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue. Plaintiffs appealed this ruling. Prior to the appeal, the Florida Association of School Administrators and the Florida School Boards Association withdrew from the case. In August, 2016, the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the Circuit Court, holding that the plaintiffs suffered no special injury from the tax-credit scholarship program, and that the state legislature did not exceed its authority under the constitution. McCall v. Scott, 199 So.3d 359 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016), In September, the plaintiffs filed notice to invoke discretionary jurisdiction of the Florida Supreme Court, asking the high court to accept their appeal. The Florida Supreme Court declined to accept the case and refused to allow rehearing on the case, effectively ending this litigation. McCall v. Scott, cert. denied 2017 WL 192043, Case No. SC16-1668 (Fla. Jan. 18, 2017).
On January 4, 2019, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a claim that the state did not adequately fund education. The high court also preserved Florida’s school choice programs due to plaintiffs’ failure to adequately preserve their arguments throughout the litigation. The high court affirmed two lower court rulings holding that plaintiffs had no standing to sue regarding the tax-credit scholarship program and that the McKay voucher program was beneficial and constitutional. Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, case No. SC18-67 (FL. Jan 4, 2019).
This ruling concluded a ten year litigation effort. In July 2014, Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. and Fund Education Now amended a 5-year-old lawsuit alleging the state had failed to adequately fund public education, to include new claims concerning the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the McKay
voucher program for students with special needs. The plaintiffs’ amended complaint contended the school choice programs, among other programs, unconstitutionally “divert” money from Florida’s public schools. The Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit In and For Leon County State of Florida ruled against plaintiffs, upholding the constitutionality of Florida’s school choice programs, on May 24, 2016. In June of that year, plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the District Court of Appeal State of Florida First District. Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Florida State Board of Education, No. CA-4534 (Fla. 2d. Jud. Cir. May 24, 2016).
On December 13, 2017, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal rejected claims that the state’s constitutional provision for uniform, efficient, safe, secure, high-quality public schools was violated as a direct result of inadequate funding and Florida’s school choice programs. The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s May 2016 opinion. Notwithstanding the Florida Supreme Court’s prior ruling against vouchers in Bush v. Holmes, 886 So. 2d 340 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004), aff’d on other grounds, 919 So. 2d 392 (Fla. 2006), the court stated that a modest (voucher) program that aids parents of children with special needs in finding suitable education could not violate the “text or spirit” of Florida’s constitutional requirement for “a uniform system of free public schools.” The court also reminded plaintiffs that the Florida Supreme Court previously ruled they had no standing to sue against the tax-credit scholarship program and that the school choice program did not divert state funding or have any detrimental effect on Florida’s system of public schools. Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, No. 1D16-2862 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2017).
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