Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program was enacted and launched in 1999, making it the nation’s first school voucher program for students with special needs. The Florida legislature expanded the program in 2000. Learn more about the most up-to-date program details on this page, including eligibility, funding, regulations, legal history and more.
America’s first voucher program exclusively for students with special needs
30,695 participating students (2018–19)
12 percent of students eligible statewide
1,525 participating schools (2018–19)
Average voucher value: $7,157 (2018–19)
Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 79 percent
Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program allows public school students with disabilities or 504 plans to receive vouchers to attend private schools or other public schools.
Vouchers are worth up to the same amount public schools would have spent on a participating child, though funding may not exceed the private school’s tuition and fees. Parents may supplement vouchers with their own money.
Students with disabilities—who have IEPs or a 504 plan—enrolled in public school for at least one year are eligible. Students entering kindergarten may also qualify if the state’s Office of Early Learning reported that they received specialized instructional services in prekindergarten.
Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship program was the first of its kind in the country and remains the model for similar, newly created programs in other states. The program excels on funding power and school requirements. Vouchers are worth up to the child’s full funding in his or her previous public school. As for school requirements, participating schools must be approved by the state and report to parents annually on participating students’ progress. Private schools are not required to accept all students—an important feature, as not all private schools are equipped to educate students with special needs. The program’s only shortcoming is that it is limited, in this case to students with special needs. Obviously those children deserve access to a great education, but other Florida students similarly could benefit from McKay’s generous vouchers. Should the program expand eligibility, it would only improve upon its already great achievements.
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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