Florida families have more school choice options to contemplate than ever before, as they review the possibilities for 2020-21.
The newest program from the Legislature is a state-funded voucher, called the ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship.’ Created because Tax Credit Scholarship donations did not keep up with demand, the voucher quickly became the biggest choice launch in state history.
Officials announced in early October that all 18,000 awards for low-income children had been claimed for the current school year. They expected to see the program grow for 2020-21 beyond its $130 million initial allocation, with a goal of serving more students who otherwise can afford only limited choices.
To qualify for the scholarship, a student must be from a family that earns 300 percent of the poverty level or less, which works out to $77,250 for a family of four. But priority is given to children in families with incomes at or less than 185 percent of the poverty level, or $46,637 for a family of four. Those numbers could change in future legislation.
The awards generally range between $6,300 and $7,500, but depend on grade level and location. A chart is available here.
Families that took advantage of the program this year are able to renew their financial support until their child completes high school or turns 21, whichever comes first. That’s regardless of whether their income level changes.
Siblings living in the same house as current recipients are also eligible for the new vouchers. The state’s scholarship funding organizations are managing the application process.
Students must be accepted by a private school that participates in the program in order to get an award, and they must have attended public school in the year before.
The ‘Empowerment’ scholarship is the partner to the Tax Credit Scholarship, which is funded by corporate donations in exchange for a tax writeoff, rather than money from the state budget. Tax Credit Scholarship applications are processed as they are received, but they are prioritized for students with the highest financial need.
For these scholarships, a family of four cannot earn more than $66,950. Again, priority is given to families with lower income. In the case of the family of four, that maximum would be $47,638.
And for the first time this year, each scholarship is fully funded based on grade level and county of residence. Partial awards, which have been granted in the past, no longer exist.
A private school scholarship also is available for students who claim they have been bullied in their public schools.
Though first established in 2018, the ‘Hope’ program has not drawn the interest that lawmakers had expected. That’s even with their creation of broad eligibility requirements that do not even require school districts to verify that the bullying occurred.
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State officials have said they plan to look into why the scholarship has not been widely used, with concerns that districts might not be providing enough information to students.
Lawmakers also boosted funding by $23 million for the Gardiner Scholarship for students with disabilities. The move aimed to eliminate the known waiting list for eligible children, much like the Empowerment program.
The added funding made it possible to award about 2,000 more scholarships, which families may use for any aspect of their children’s education.