In a landmark move, Florida has taken a giant leap forward in expanding school choice options for students across the state. On March 27, 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1 (HB 1), a historic piece of legislation that eliminates financial eligibility restrictions and the enrollment cap for school choice programs. As of July 1, 2023, Florida’s existing Family Empowerment Scholarship Educational Opportunity Voucher Program (FES EO) and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program will be converted into education savings account programs that will become open to every child in the state who wishes to enroll in a non-public school option, like private school or homeschool.
With the passage of HB 1, the state has dramatically transformed its existing private school scholarship programs, potentially impacting those who have children or grandchildren in K-12 or private schools, as well as those considering using funds from a 529 plan to cover K-12 expenses. Although Florida already has one of the highest shares of K-12 students attending schools that fall outside of the traditional public school system, the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Educational Opportunity Voucher Program and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship previously served only low and middle-income families and were limited to use for private school tuition. Now, all children will be eligible to apply for a scholarship, and families will have new opportunities to customize learning through education savings accounts.
What does Florida’s universal school choice bill aim to achieve?
Florida’s school choice legislation marks a historic milestone in expanding educational opportunities for students throughout the state by:
Expanding educational freedom
HB 1 breaks down barriers by enabling all eligible students to participate in available school choice options. The legislation eliminates financial eligibility restrictions, granting every student in Florida the opportunity to enroll in a school of their choice. Previously, household income played a significant role in determining eligibility, but now, it will no longer be a limiting factor.
Increasing scholarships and financial aid
To prioritize students with financial need, the bill continues to offer scholarships to students from households with incomes up to 185% of the federal poverty level. Additionally, a new provision allows scholarships to be awarded to students from households with incomes between 185% and 400% of the federal poverty level. A broader range of families will be eligible for education assistance, making educational opportunities more accessible to those who may have previously fallen outside the eligibility criteria.
Addressing high demand and waitlists
Recognizing the demand for scholarships and the need to reduce waitlists, HB 1 increases the annual scholarship adjustment for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities from 1% to 3%. In an effort to accommodate more students in school choice programs, the legislation eliminates the previous enrollment cap and the exemptions to the maximum number of students who can participate in FES-EO.
Streamlining access to school choice
To facilitate the selection of educational options, HB 1 requires the Office of K-12 School Choice to develop an online portal that empowers parents to make informed decisions about their child’s education. Families participating in the program will receive their child’s education funds (about $8,000 for 2023-2024) in an account. Through an online portal, they can then use these funds for approved learning expenses.
Making the teaching profession more accessible
The bill aims to make the teaching profession more accessible to experienced educators, allowing them to focus on their instructional expertise rather than unnecessary bureaucratic requirements by:
- Waiving the general education requirement for teachers who have had three years of experience and have received consistent “effective” or “highly effective” ratings
- Expanding the length of a temporary teaching certificate from three years to five years
- Requiring the State Board of Education to recommend additional repeals and revisions to the education code
How does school choice work in Florida?
Florida’s school choice programs provide alternatives to parents who do not wish to send their children to the local public schools to which they are assigned. Families can apply for a voucher through one of Florida’s two scholarship funding organizations. The voucher can be used to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling resources, or other school-related costs.
Who is eligible for the Florida school choice bill program?
There is no financial eligibility requirement to apply, although the program will have some funding limits. While all families will be eligible to participate, low-income families and children in foster care will receive first priority, followed by middle-income families and so forth, until the funding cap is met.
Here are some of the approved expenses under Florida’s newly expanded education savings account:
- Private school tuition at a participating school
- Online learning costs
- Homeschool curriculum
- Part-time tutoring services
- Part-time enrollment in college as part of a dual-enrollment program
- Fees for industry certification exams or Advanced Placement tests
- Approved courses or services offered by public school districts
Does Florida pay for homeschooling?
Provided homeschooling parents and institutions are willing to abide by state guidelines, the voucher can be used towards homeschooling resources. Families should indicate their interest when completing their application.
How much is the school choice voucher in Florida?
Vouchers amount to about $8,000 a year for K-12 students, regardless of family income. This number is based on the average per-student allotment from districts. Families who receive more money in a voucher than is required for schooling can put those residual funds toward other education expenses. On the other hand, families who receive less money in a voucher than is required for tuition will be expected to pay the difference. Remember that the voucher funds aren’t sent to the individual, but to the school.
How to apply for Florida’s universal school choice bill
Parents can apply for the scholarships through Step Up for Students, a nonprofit in charge of handling the applications and payments. On the website, you can choose between scholarships, create an account (which will later be your education savings account), and send in your applications.
You will need:
- Proof of Florida residency — either a valid driver’s license or a recent utility bill
- Social Security Number
- Birth certificate for the respective student
- Proof of income for all members of the household over the age of 18
For kids K–12 without disabilities, you can apply here for the FTC or FES-EO.
How does the Florida universal school choice bill impact my financial planning?
If you are using a 529 plan to cover K-12 expenses, you may wish to apply for a state-backed voucher so that you can reserve your 529 savings to pay for your child’s college education. Just remember that assistance is granted based on income, so accessing these funds isn’t guaranteed.
You also need to bear in mind that the education savings account funding (about $8,000) may not fully cover tuition at all private schools. If there’s a gap, you will have to pay the shortfall or inquire whether the school offers need-based or merit-based scholarships. In addition, not every private school in Florida will be an option since a private school must choose to participate in the program and meet state requirements.
If you need help devising an appropriate financial plan to find your children’s education, or feel that your plan needs to change in response to Florida’s universal school choice bill, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our professional CPAs.