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
31,044 participating students (2017–18)
13 percent of students eligible statewide
1,482 participating schools (2017–18)
Average voucher value: $7,104 (2017–18)
Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 78 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 Individualized Education Plans 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. Section 504 protects qualified individuals with disabilities, defined as persons with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
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.
In July 2014, Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. and Fund Education Now amended a five-year-old lawsuit alleging the state has 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 contends 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. 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 finding that Florida’s system of free public schools satisfies constitutional requirements, and opined that plaintiffs’ claims “either raise political questions not subject to judicial review or were correctly rejected on the merits.” Both the trial and appellate courts opined that Florida’s McKay voucher for children with disabilities does not negatively impact public school funding or quality but rather offers an educational benefit for children. 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)