Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (ESA)
- Education Savings Account (ESA)
- Enacted 2014
- Launched 2014
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (Unique Abilities ESA) allows students with special needs an opportunity to receive an education savings account (ESA) funded by the state and administered by an approved scholarship-funding organization (SFO). Parents can use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, home education, curriculum, therapy, postsecondary educational institutions in Florida and other defined educational services. Learn more about it on this page, including eligibility, funding, regulations, legal history and more.
We do not administer this program.
Participating Students (2020-21)
of Students Eligible Statewide
Participating Schools (2020–21)
Average Account Value (2020–21)
Value as a Percentage of Per-Student Funding for Special Needs (Maximum)
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (ESA) Participation
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (ESA) is funded through the Florida Education Finance Plan. The per-pupil amount varies according to grade, county of residence and public school spending for students with disabilities, with the maximum equating to 90 percent of the cost of the matrix of services a student would receive from a school district. The Florida legislature appropriated $189.9 million to the ESA program for 2020–21. ESAs are prorated based on the academic quarter in which the student is deemed eligible for the ESA by a scholarship-funding organization.
To be awarded an ESA, students must between the ages of three and 22 or be in 12th grade, whichever comes first. Students must have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed by a physician or psychologist with one of the following: autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, an intellectual disability, muscular dystrophy, Phelan-McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, anaphylaxis, dual sensory impairment, rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000 Americans, specific learning disabilities, and other health impairments as defined by law. Students are also eligible if A) they are identified as deaf or visually impaired, B) they have had a traumatic brain injury defined by the state board of education, C) they are hospitalized or homebound with a medically diagnosed physical or psychiatric condition for more than six months or D) they are students aged three, four or five who are considered “high-risk” due to developmental delay.
**Note: As of July 1, 2022, students participating in the McKay Scholarship Program joined the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program under the Unique Abilities category (FES UA).
EdChoice Expert Feedback
Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs helps more than a ten thousand low-income students access schools that are the right fit for them, but policymakers could do more to expand educational opportunity.
Eligibility for the scholarships is limited to students with certain special needs. About one in 10 Florida students are eligible to receive a scholarship. Statewide, less than 10 percent of students participate in one of Florida’s private educational choice options (including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Family Empowerment Scholarship Program for Educational Opportunities, and the Hope Scholarships Program. This is the second highest EdChoice share in the nation.
The average ESA size is about $10,200, which is slightly above the average student expenditure at Florida’s district schools but still only a portion of the average per-pupil funding for students with special needs at district schools.
Florida’s ESA program generally avoids unnecessary and counterproductive regulations.
Rules and Regulations
- Income Limit: None
- Prior Year Public School Requirement: None
- Geographic Limit: Statewide
- Enrollment Cap: 20,000 students plus students exempted from the cap (students in foster care, adopted students and students who attended a public school, or school for deaf and blind, in the prior year); cap has an escalator of 1% of public school attendance per year
- Account Cap: 100 percent of Florida Education Finance Plan funding per pupil
- Testing Mandates: State test or Nationally norm-referenced tests (if deemed appropriate for the child)
- Limited to students with certain special needs, those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder; cerebral palsy; Down syndrome; an intellectual disability; muscular dystrophy; Phelan-McDermid syndrome; Prader-Willi syndrome; spina-bifida; Williams syndrome; identified as deaf, visually impaired, or having a traumatic brain injury defined by the State Board of Education; those who are hospitalized or homebound with a medically diagnosed physical or psychiatric condition for more than six months; or students age 3, 4, or 5 who are considered “high-risk” due to developmental delays
- Must sign an agreement with the SFO annually to:
- Affirm that the student is enrolled in a program that meets regular school attendance requirements
- Affirm that program funds are used only for authorized purposes serving the student’s educational needs
- Ensure student takes all appropriate standardized assessments, either the state assessment test or a nationally recognized norm-referenced test that is administered by a school
- Affirm that the parent will not transfer any college savings funds to another beneficiary
- Affirm that the parent will not take possession of any funding provided by the state
- Affirm that an insurance company, Medicaid or any other agency will not be billed for the same services that are paid for using Gardiner Scholarship funds
On December 30, 2014, the Circuit Court, Second Judicial Circuit, Leon County, Florida, dismissed, with prejudice, a case challenging the Gardiner Scholarship. The plaintiff, a high school social studies teacher in the Lee County Public Schools, in July of 2014 alleged the law violated the state constitution’s “single subject matter” rule. There was no appeal. Faasse v. Scott, No. 2014 CA 1859 (Fla. 2d Cir. Dec. 30, 2014)
(Last Updated January 5, 2023)
Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (ESA) State Groups
That Support School Choice
ExcelinEd supports state leaders in transforming education to unlock opportunity and lifelong success for each and every child through their policy work.
Step Up For Students is a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer five scholarships for Florida schoolchildren: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for public school students who are bullied or victims of violence and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading.