An education choice bill that would streamline options for families who receive state scholarships won approval today from the House Appropriations Committee and is headed for a floor vote.

HB 7045 passed with Democratic Reps. James Bush III of Opa-Locka, Anika Omphroy of Sunrise, Nicholas Duran of Miami, and Patricia H. Williams of Fort Lauderdale joining the Republicans in supporting the bill.

The bill 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. 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.

“Current McKay or Gardiner students will never receive one dollar less than they do today,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.

The bill 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.

Fine said the bill “reduces complexity without consequences.”

He said in approving the patchwork of programs, legislators “created needless complexity by having four different scholarship programs that try to solve two different problems. We want to address the complexity without taking away any choice.”

The bill was filed as a companion to SB 48, which cleared its last committee in March. It now heads to the House floor for approval.

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