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Elizabeth Djinis
By Elizabeth Djinis October 31, 2022

Florida expanded school choice programs by consolidating them, lowering requirements for entry

Providing public funding for students to attend institutions other than public schools in an effort known as school choice has been a cornerstone of the Republican platform in Florida since the Florida Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship program was created in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush. ​

This school year, 93,141 lower-income students received Florida Tax Credit scholarships, according to Step Up for Students, the nonprofit administering the funds. This is a marked increase from the 15,585 students the scholarship enrolled in 2002-03, its first recorded full year. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigned on the promise that he would "expand choice scholarship programs," particularly by raising the number of participants for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and effectively eliminating its waitlist.

With the Legislature's formation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options program, or FES, in 2019 and its subsequent expansion of the program in 2020's HB 7067 and 2021's HB 7045 DeSantis achieved his promised expansion.  

Step Up for Students spokesperson Scott Kent said the scholarship changes enabled even more students to take advantage of school choice programs by: 

  • creating more spots and eliminating the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit scholarship;

  • raising the income eligibility for the Family Empowerment Scholarship/Florida Tax Credit scholarships;

  • eliminating a requirement to have attended public school the year prior;

  • and exempting certain students from income eligibility requirements and program participation caps.

The program's expansion lumped the former McKay Scholarship and Gardiner Scholarship into the FES program for students with unique abilities, defined partly as students with a physical or intellectual impairment that limits a major life activity in some way.

The number of students enrolled in income-based scholarships like the Family Empowerment Scholarship and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship have increased since 2019, according to numbers Kent provided. In the 2021-22 school year, more than 165,000 received scholarships, up 16% from 142,736 the previous year. By the same token, the Gardiner Scholarship grew from more than 14,000 students in 2019-20 to more than 26,000 two years later, an 86% jump. 

Former Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend, who has been an outspoken critic of Florida's education system, is skeptical of these numbers. He notes these scholarships often have a high turnover rate and that enrollment numbers don't necessarily reflect how many students stay. A 2019 study from the Urban Institute found that 58% of Florida tax credit scholarship students leave the program after two years or less. 

And although policies enacted under DeSantis' administration could mean more students can take advantage of school choice programs, these programs have largely been consolidated under broader umbrellas, Townsend said. 

Based on the increase of students enrolled in the scholarship programs and pro-student-choice policies that have been enacted under DeSantis' administration, we rate this Promise Kept.

Our Sources

EdChoice, What is school choice? 

ReimaginEd, The 20-year-old scholarship success that might not have been, June 11, 2021

Email interview, Scott Kent, Step Up for Students, June 23, 2021

Phone interview, Billy Townsend, former Polk County School Board member, June 22, 2021

Ron DeSantis campaign website, Boost Classroom Spending For Students and Teachers, Expand Choice, Vocational and Technical Education, and Hold the Line on College Tuition

Step Up for Students, Basic Program Facts about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC)

Florida Department of Education, McKay Scholarship

Step Up for Students, How the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities Works

Florida Senate, 2018 Florida Statutes, Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program

Urban Institute, The Effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on College Enrollment and Graduation: An Update, February 2019

Email interview, Jeremy Redfern, Deputy Press Secretary, Executive Office of the Governor, Oct. 14, 2022 

Office of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Governor Ron DeSantis signs scholarship legislation, June 25, 2020

Florida Senate, HB 7045, Filed March 24, 2021

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 13, 2019

DeSantis moves ahead on promise to expand school choice scholarships

A law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis creates a new voucher program for students, easing the burden on a waiting list for a similar scholarship program.

The creation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship is in keeping with DeSantis' campaign promise to expand K-12 school scholarships for low-income students, building off of a voucher program started under Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. 

Bush's Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program allows corporate donors to give money to nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations, which then give the scholarships to poor children. The companies in turn received tax breaks from the state.

The scholarships are used by primarily black and Hispanic students of lower-income families. During the 2018-19 school year, there were about 104,000 students who used the scholarships at private schools.

When DeSantis took office, there were roughly 13,000 students on the waiting list.

The program has always had a cap on contributions, which ends up being a cap on enrollment, said Jon East, a spokesman for Step up for Students, which administers the scholarships. This year the cap is about $874 million. 

As part of his promise, DeSantis aimed to increase the cap on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, but that didn't happen. Instead, lawmakers created the new program.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship is expected to benefit 18,000 students. The program includes $130 million in direct state funding for the new scholarship students entering the program. 

The new program expands eligibility for scholarships to a slightly higher income threshold to include households earning up to $77,250 for a family of four. That's up from $66,950 for the tax credit program. 

"Collectively, it is on pace to produce the largest single-year increase enrollment since the FTC was created in 2001," East said. 

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, opposed the new program. The union argued that the taxpayer dollars are being taken from a tight education budget and that the majority of the schools under the tax credit program are religious schools.

A similar voucher program was struck down in 2006, but Republicans hope that it withstands any potential future court challenge under the current Florida Supreme Court.

For now, DeSantis has achieved his goal of expanding school choice, so we rate this Promise Kept.

Our Sources

Florida Senate, SB 7070, May 2019

Florida Department of Education, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship FAQs, Accessed Sept. 11, 2019

Florida Department of Education, Family Empowerment Scholarship, Accessed Sept. 11, 2019

Miami Herald, DeSantis asks for $100 million so low-income students don't have to wait for aid, Feb. 15, 2019

Gainesville Sun, Lawmakers OK private school voucher program, April 30, 2019

Orlando Sentinel, More Florida private schools grow dependent on vouchers, April 19, 2015

Email interview, Cheryl Etters, Florida Department of Education, Aug. 26, 2019

Telephone and email interview, Jon East, Step up for Students vice president for policy and public affairs, Aug. 14, 2019

Email interview, Liz Hayes, Americans United for Separation of Church and State spokeswoman, Sept. 11, 2019

Email interview, Ronald G. Meyer, Lawyer, Meyer, Brooks, Blohm and Hearn, P.A. Sept. 12, 2019

Email interview, Sharon Nesvig, Florida Education Association spokeswoman, Aug. 14, 2019


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