HB 7045 expands eligibility, maximizes parental choice in K-12 scholarship programs
By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
On May 11, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law HB 7045 to restructure state-funded scholarship programs that benefit low-income families and children with disabilities in order to provide more opportunities to a greater population of students. Since then, there are several questions circulating among the educational community and families.
Specifically, this law, to be effective on July 1 and which, among other things, repeals the Gardiner Scholarship Program (GSP) and the McKay Scholarship aimed at children with disabilities to merge them into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (FES), the main question is: what can families who are now eligible for these scholarships and those who already have this benefit expect?
According to the legislation, more than 60 thousand new students may be eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to access private K-12 schools or several additional services such as extracurricular activities depending on the needs and preferences of each family.
The reason that an opportunity has been opened for new families is that some requirements that were previously foreseen to apply for these scholarships were removed, such as, for example, being in or coming from a public school in order to be eligible for a scholarship.
At the same time, other eligibility criteria were expanded. For example, now families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 can apply for scholarships, while currently they are limited to those that produce $79,500.
In addition, from now on, students who are dependents of a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, adopted children and siblings of a student receiving a FES scholarship will be included.
On the other hand, the individual amounts will be increased to 100% of the state funds allocated to the education of the child under the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) and priority will be given to households whose income level does not exceed 185% of the federal level poverty or to those in foster care.
Also, there will be more spending flexibility for families, as they can now use the vouchers for educational options and additional services, including digital devices, Internet access, as well as being able to use them as a savings account in the case of children with disabilities, in private school tuition, as a transportation scholarship option to another public school or for homeschooling.
A deeper look at the bill
The new $200 million school choice plan was sponsored by Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. and Representative Randy Fine. The main goal of this bill is to expand the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (FES) to include two targets: families with limited income and children with disabilities.
The first target will be part of a branch called Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, while the second, of the branch Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.
The first branch is income-based with the aforementioned adjustment. In this way, families that meet the income requirement and need other educational options such as advanced math classes or to be enrolled at a private school may do so through scholarship funding organizations such as Step Up For Students.
Meanwhile, families that have students with disabilities who want to apply or are beneficiaries of the Gardiner or McKay scholarships will be part of the second group. These two scholarships used to work separately but now they will be merged into the same umbrella which is the FES Program.
All these scholarships, and others such as Hope and the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship program, although to be merged, they will continue to have separate eligibility criteria and families must still apply through Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation, the two scholarship funding agencies in the state.
“We consolidated everything into one pot because there was a lot of confusion with so many scholarships available. Now students apply and depending on certain criteria, they may fall in the spectrum of special needs or low-income,” explains Senator and sponsor of the law, Manny Diaz, in an exclusive interview.
But the most significant change is that approximately 4,000 more scholarships will be available to students with unique abilities in the coming year. Meanwhile, there will be a maximum program capacity of 20,000 students for the year 2021-2022, a limit from which students who received specialized instructional services in VPK or attended a public school in the prior school year will be excluded.
The program capacity will also not include dependent children of a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, a foster or adopted child, those who have received a Florida Tax Credit (FTC), a Hope scholarship the previous year that was not renewed due to lack of funds available or children eligible for Kindergarten for the year 2022-2023.
Addressing important issues
The Florida school choice expansion is said to be one of the largest in the country. But even though its main goal is to allow the inclusion of many more students, there are still concerns and questions around those who are already part of these programs, whether public schools will be affected and what new applicants can expect.
“All students currently under Gardiner or McKay are grandfathered in and do not count against the cap. If the demand increases, we can easily increase the growth pattern (beyond the growth of 4,000 students per year that is contemplated so far), which is why no student with disabilities will be excluded from the program,” says Senator Manny Díaz.
Christi Fraga, School Board Member for District 5, considers that there will be no negative impact for the current recipients of the scholarships or for those who apply for the first time.
“This program will be very positive for students who live in less favored areas such as Overtown or Liberty City but who have a special talent because with a scholarship they can go to a private school that helps them make the most of their skills”, says Fraga.
According to some parents, the fact that the scholarships have now been extended to, for example, the siblings of those who already have a FES scholarship, only brings benefits.
This is the case of Carolina Ríos, who has been receiving money as part of the Gardiner scholarship since last year for her 5-year-old son and is pregnant with her second child. “This new legislation is a game-changer for us because now I know that I can provide my youngest son with the same education that the oldest will have,” she says.
As for the amount that the current recipients of these scholarships will receive next year, according to the Senator, they will receive the same amount of money that they have been obtaining so far regardless of their disability. However, the funds issued to new students entering the program will depend on their level of disability.
“Those who do not have an IEP or are at a lower level of disability and are new to the program will receive an average amount, as we decided to raise the money for students with higher disabilities who require more attention,” adds Diaz.
As for the impact public schools may feel, which represents a questionable aspect for many, Senator Diaz says the program will be financed from a different pot of money. “Our public school budget has not been touched.”
In this regard, Christi Fraga thinks that although it is true that for each child who leaves the public school system, resources that could be used to improve the quality of the service provided are lost, in reality, this fact could be significant only in areas where student enrollment is low, which is not the case for Doral schools that are almost at full capacity.
“We always find a way to continue offering the same benefits to children, which is why I believe that the new House Bill will not impact schools or their programs dramatically. Specifically, it will not harm families that are part of the system.”