The full Florida House heard for the first time earlier today an education choice bill that would simplify the state’s K-12 scholarship programs by merging five programs into three.

If given final approval on a House floor later this week, HB 7045, which has been approved in two House committees, would simplify navigation of the programs for families by merging the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, and combining them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program approved in 2019.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship would serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other would continue to serve lower-income families.

The bill would leave intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. Additionally, the bill would simplify eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Each program currently has different income requirements.

The bill also would provide one-stop shopping for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, which include Step Up For Students, host of this blog.

Under the bill, families currently receiving flexible spending dollars under the Gardiner program would continue to receive their scholarships as education savings accounts; McKay’s traditional scholarships would be converted to education savings accounts starting in the 2022-23 school year. Families currently participating in each program would receive whichever dollar amounts were higher, whether that was in current law or in HB 7045.

“This is going to make more children eligible for scholarships; it’s going to provide them with more money, and it’s going to provide more flexibility,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.

HB 7045 also would make it easier for lower-income families to qualify for their category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program by eliminating a requirement that students attend a district school the previous year to qualify for the scholarship.

That requirement resulted in some families whose incomes took a hit due to a tragedy or during the pandemic from being turned down for scholarships that would have helped them keep their children in their private schools.

This has been a longstanding issue,” Fine said.

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