family empowerment scholarship

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted along party lines to give 28,000 more economically disadvantaged students a shot at a K-12 private school option next year.

Under HB 7067, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which is serving 18,000 students in its first year, would be allowed to serve as many as 28,000 additional students next year. Under current law, the program could grow by 0.25 percent of the total public-school student enrollment, or roughly 7,000 students. The bill changes that amount to 1 percent.

The bill also would provide for a gradual increase in household income eligibility. Currently, the eligibility is limited to students whose household income does not exceed 300 percent of poverty, which is $78,6000 for a household of four. Under the bill, the eligibility limit would rise by 25 percentage points in any year in which more than 5 percent of the number of available Family Empowerment Scholarships are not awarded. Priority under the law would continue to go to households whose income does not exceed 185 percent of poverty, or $48,470.

The bill also makes changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, allowing students who receive scholarships to remain the program until they enroll in a public school, graduate or turn 21 — aligning that provision with the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

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. A similar bill, SB 1220, won approval earlier today from the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

More than 50 people attended the House Committee meeting prepared to speak in favor of the bill, including families who have benefited from the scholarship programs. Among them was Adriana Ortega, mother of a 9-year-old on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and a 6-year-old who participates in the Gardiner Scholarship program. Both attend Downey Christian School in Orlando.

“The scholarship has been a blessing to us,” Ortega said. “We need to ensure more Florida families can benefit from them.”

Nadia Hionides, principal of The Foundation Academy, a faith-based and LGBTQ-affirming private school in Jacksonville, urged lawmakers to support the bill.

“I hope that whatever you decide to do leads to more options for more parents in the end,” she said.

Elijah Robinson, a senior at The Foundation Academy, told lawmakers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship transformed his life after he endured two years of constant bullying at his public school.

“Please support this and bill and don’t do anything that will result in fewer scholarships,” he said.

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

Additionally, the bill would close scholarship accounts that have been inactive for two years instead of the current three years, paving the way for more students to be served.

The Gardiner Scholarship, created in 2014, allows parents of students with unique abilities to create a customized education program for their children and covers expenses beyond tuition including tutoring, therapies and curriculum materials. The program currently serves 13,000 students.

A companion bill that would revise eligibility requirements for the Gardiner Scholarship, sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville,  SB 1164, is currently in the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

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