school choice

A bill that would expand school choice for thousands of students won approval today from the Florida House education committee.

Under PCB EDC 20-01, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program approved last year would grant priority to students who already have scholarships and to new families whose incomes are at 185 percent of the federal poverty level as well as to foster children and children in military families. If more than 5 percent of available Family Empowerment Scholarships have not been awarded, the maximum household income eligibility level would rise by 25 percentage points the following fiscal year.

The bill also would allow the number of students on the program to grow to 1 percent of the state’s total public school enrollment. The annual growth rate is now capped at .25 percent for the program, which serves 18,000 students.

State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Altamonte Springs, who introduced the bill, said during the committee meeting that the changes would open the program to an additional 10,000 students.

“There is a demand for these programs because they are working, and they are helping our families,” Sullivan said.

The bill additionally makes changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program by allowing students who receive scholarships to remain in the program until they enroll in a public school, graduate from high school or turn 21. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, and serves 108,000 students from economically disadvantaged families.

Also included in the bill were changes to the Gardiner Scholarship program for children with unique abilities. It would allow those students who turn 3 after Sept. 1 to receive a scholarship if funds are available instead of having to wait until the following year to apply. 

The program, created in 2014, allows parents to create a customized education plan for their children. Expenses such as tuition, therapies, supplies and technology are covered, and unspent money may roll over from year to year. The program currently serves 13,000 students.

Several supporters spoke in favor of the bill at today’s hearing including Blake Jones, whose 5-year-old son attends a private school on a Family Empowerment Scholarship.

“We are thrilled to send our son to a school that matches his personality and affinity to be active in everything he does,” said Jones. Without the scholarship, he added, tuition would cost 20 percent of his family’s household income.

With it, Jones said, “We don’t have to live on a financial knife’s edge.”

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