Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature

Part 115 of 114 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

More Florida families may get to send their kids to private school thanks to a new piece of legislation.

Florida’s Legislature recently passed an expansion to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, allowing partial scholarships to private schools for families that earn a little too much money to be eligible for a full scholarship. The bill also included some tighter restrictions on scholarship nonprofits.

This school choice expansion awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature before becoming law.

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program — which is not a voucher program — will be open to more students if the governor signs a bill into law.

“I think overall it’s a good thing,” said Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager for Step Up for Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships. “What’s important here is the program will serve more children and provide those students with larger scholarships.”

The tax-credit scholarship program is not a voucher program, which was ruled unconstitutional in Florida in 2006, except for the special needs students’ voucher program. Instead, the tax-credit scholarship program allows corporations to donate to a nonprofit, which then provides scholarships to low-income students. Corporations can take tax credits for those donations. Scholarships, then, are funded through incentivized private donations instead of public money.

By law, $358 million can be awarded in scholarships this year. If at least 90 percent of that amount is raised and all available scholarships are given out, the program can grow again next year. The program has been growing every year since this “escalator” system was put in place.

Under current law, students enter the scholarship program if their families earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. They can continue receiving the scholarship as long as their families are below 230 percent of the federal poverty level.

With the new bill, students will be eligible for new scholarships and renewed scholarships if their family’s income is up to 260 percent of the poverty level. Students from families earning 200 to 260 percent would receive a partial scholarship, ranging from 50 to 88 percent of the full scholarship amount. This would be effective the 2016-2017 school year.

The federal poverty level is $23,850 for a family of four.

The new bill would allow more children to move into the scholarship program if they had previously attended private schools. Current law allows foster children to participate, but the bill expands eligibility to children taken out of their parents’ home and placed with grandparents, neighbors or others who don’t have state foster care licenses. Foster children who are adopted can keep their scholarships.

Scholarship granting nonprofits will be subject to a second annual audit.

The bill also included a Personalized Learning Accounts program, based on Arizona’s education savings accounts program. The PLA program allows students with specific special needs an account from which they can pay for tuition, therapy, textbooks or other educational needs. Scholarship nonprofits will administer the PLAs.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.