Parents need to choose an SFO to continue receiving the funds
By: María Alejandra Pulgar
The final step in the implementation of HB 7045, which was signed into law in May 2021 to restructure all scholarship programs funded by the State of Florida, is the transition of the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities to the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA).
The McKay Scholarship has allowed over the years that more than 27,000 students with learning differences or disabilities in Florida attend schools, private or public, that better tend to their needs. On June 30th, 2022, the law that created that program will be repelled, and effective July 1st, all students on McKay will be transferred to the FES-UA program.
The transition process has already begun. Parents or guardians of students on the McKay program should have received by now a communication from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) notifying of the upcoming changes and describing which steps they need to follow to ensure that their child continues receiving that financial assistance.
Under the FES-UA program, parents will be able to decide where to use the scholarship funds to cater to their “child’s unique educational needs”, as funds can be used not only for covering school tuition but for other educational programs as well.
What can be covered and how to access the FES-UA funds
According to the FLDOE communication, families participating on the FES-UA program will have “access to a personal Education Savings Account (ESA)” where they will “receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple uses. With the ESA families can fund items such as private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and other approved customized learning services and materials”, until the annual funds assigned to the student have been depleted.
The amount of those funds for each student is calculated based on the “student’s grade level, matrix level, and school district”, may vary each year, and are provided through the Florida Education Finance Program budget. The HB 7045 provided that the FES-UA scholarship funds for McKay students shall not be lower than those received for the school year 2021-2022.
Parents will select in the upcoming weeks a Scholarship Fund Organization (SFO) to administer the ESA. Families will not need to reapply for the scholarship every year to continue receiving the funds but will need to sign a compliance statement to remain eligible.
Choices for SFO and changes in payment procedures
In the upcoming weeks, parents will begin receiving communications from the two approved agencies authorized to be Scholarship Fund Organizations (SFO). Those agencies are Step Up for Students https://www.stepupforstudents.org/ and AAA Scholarship Foundation http://www.aaascholarships.org/
Once selected, the SFO will guide parents through the process of completing the transition to the FES-UA program, selecting providers for authorized services, sending payments or processing reimbursements for qualified services. For those parents who are mainly using the scholarship to cover tuition and fees, they need to be aware that if they decide to spend the FES-UA funds on other services they will be responsible for covering the remaining private school tuition fees from other personal sources.
Private schools currently approved as providers for state scholarship programs have to keep that status to continue receiving payments from SFOs from the FES-UA program funds. Current schools are providing meetings to their McKay families to help them through this transition process. They will inform families of which SFO they will be working with and how they will handle processing payments, as the current McKay check endorsement procedure will end after the final payment of this school year has been processed.
Other benefits of the FES-UA Program
Under the HB 7045 provisions, siblings of FES-UA beneficiaries are now “eligible for a scholarship to attend a private school under the Educational Options branch of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, regardless of the family’s income level”.
Up until now, McKay scholarship recipients’ siblings were not eligible for state-funded scholarship programs. This provision allows families to balance the educational choices for all their children; to obtain this benefit, they will need to provide the sibling information to their selected SFO to coordinate the transition.
The success of the transition process for families who are recipient of the McKay scholarship to the FES-UA program depends not only on the provision of state funds, but on the responsibility parents assume to follow the required steps, to register all information timely on the SFO, and to carefully control the expenditure of the funds so they can provide an effective and enhanced educational experience to their children with the assistance of those funds.
For more information on the FES-UA program, parents can review the FLDOE webpage https://WWW.FLORIDASCHOOLCHOICE.ORG