On March 27, 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a major education funding bill, changing state scholarship programs in a way that can impact homeschooling families who apply for the scholarships.
Introduced as House Bill 1 (HB 1), this law makes the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) programs available to any family with children who are eligible to attend Florida public schools.
The FES provides funds enabling a child to attend a different traditional school. FTC funds can be used to enable a child to attend a different traditional school or to teach a child at home.The new law will go into effect on July 1, 2023. However, this measure does not affect Florida homeschooling families who are not applying for scholarships: they retain the freedom to teach their children with minimal government restrictions.
Why HB 1 Initially Raised Concerns with Homeschoolers
As originally written, HB 1 threatened to entangle homeschool families in additional government regulations. The first draft of the bill expanded eligibility for the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) and referenced home education programs in eight different places in both the FES and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) programs. Those references meant that home education programs would fall under the regulations governing the FES and FTC scholarships. This made us concerned that state and local school officials, as well as future legislators, could easily confuse families who home educate with those who choose to take state funds.
These and other concerns led Florida Parent-Educators Association, Home Education Foundation’s Brenda Dickinson, HSLDA, and other homeschool advocates to immediately begin talking about how to protect homeschooling families and working together to resolve these issues before the bill was signed. We asserted to legislators that parents who decline to participate in either the FES or FTC should remain free from the regulations associated with these scholarships.
Moving New ‘Choice Navigators’ from Mandatory to Optional
One of the more onerous government oversights proposed for both FES and FTC in the original HB 1 language was a mandatory new “choice navigator”—a person who would oversee home educating applicants and whose duties would include:
- Assisting parents “with the selection of, application for, and enrollment in education options that address the academic needs of their student.”
- Meeting with parents annually to “discuss the academic needs and progress of the student based on educational records submitted by the parent and annual assessment results.”
- Reporting all scores of nationally normed achievement tests of these students to a state university approved to monitor these programs.
While the final version of the bill still mentions optional choice navigators with a much more streamlined role, HSLDA thinks this kind of detailed oversight will likely resurface in future legislation.
An Important Difference: Home Education Programs vs. Personalized Educational Programs
Working together with FPEA, HEF, legislators, and others who value home education freedom, we were able to remove almost all mention of “home education programs” from HB 1. Home education programs are not eligible for the expansion of the FES and FTC scholarships. The new FES funds are only available to enable a child to attend a different traditional school.
A parent who wants to educate their child at home and receive the FTC scholarship would be in an entirely separate category called a “Personalized Educational Program” (PEP).* This new category ensures that home education law is not changed, and that homeschool parents who choose not to apply for the scholarship retain their freedom from increased government oversight.
The final bill also does not change the eligibility of home educated students for the FES-UA (unique abilities) scholarship. Parents can still home educate a child with an identified disability and apply for the FES-UA scholarship.
Policies and regulations are still being implemented for the FES and FTC scholarships in regard to the Personalized Educational Program (PEP) option. Updates can be found on the Florida Department of Education’s PEP option website. The two main scholarship-granting organizations in Florida have already started accepting applications for the FTC scholarship.
The FTC scholarship would provide a parent educating their child at home under a PEP with money from corporate contributions (as part of a state tax credit policy) controlled by the Florida Department of Revenue, Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, and Department of Education.
HSLDA urges parents to exercise extreme caution when considering applying for these scholarships. The application process entails numerous requirements, and the money, once granted, may only be used for approved expenses.
The history of increased regulation for programs offering state funds to home educating families is one of the reasons HSLDA advocated so strongly keep the scholarship separate from the current home education law. Two states—Arkansas and West Virginia—have already attempted to increase the regulation for all homeschoolers this year because of similar scholarship programs.
What Happens If You Apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship?
Here’s how the process works (in no particular order).
Submit application to an approved scholarship granting organization.
The scholarship is open to 20,000 students and will be expanded to more students next year.
While the scholarship is open to any student who is eligible to attend public school (i.e. between the age of 5 to 20 by September 1), there are three different levels of priority. First priority is to those households that do not exceed 185% of the federal poverty level. Second priority is to those households that do not exceed 400% of the federal poverty level. The third priority is everyone else.
According to current federal poverty levels, a family of four could make up to $55,500 for the first priority and up to $120,000 for the second priority. For every person in the household over four you can add $9,509 in the first priority and $20,560 in the second priority categories. However, for both of these categories you will be required to submit evidence of income for all members of the household to confirm you qualify.
Provide proof of Florida residency and Social Security numbers for both parents and students.
Depending on the scholarship-granting organization, applicants will also be required to provide birth certificates for students entering kindergarten or 1st grade, and in some cases for all students on the application.
Withdraw your child from public school or terminate their home education program.
A student is not eligible for the scholarship while he or she is enrolled in a public school or participating in a home education program as defined by Florida Statutes 1002.01(1).
Sign an agreement with the scholarship-granting organization to only use the funds for authorized purposes serving student’s education.
You must also acknowledge that you are responsible for all eligible expenses in excess of the scholarship amount. You would be prohibited from directly receiving any payment, refund, or rebate of any funds in the account. The scholarship will terminate and all funds be returned to the state if this were to occur.
Submit a student learning plan, updating it each year student participates in scholarship.
This learning plan must be developed by the parent to guide the instruction of his or her student. The plan must also identify the goods and services needed to address the academic needs of the student.
Have student take nationally norm-referenced test identified by the Florida Department of Education.
The parent could have the student take the statewide assessment in Florida. The results must be provided to the scholarship granting organization before the scholarship can be renewed.
Once the scholarship application is approved and funded, use scholarship money for approved expenses in the following categories:
- Instruction materials, including digital materials and Internet resources.
- Curriculum, defined as “a complete course of study for a particular content area or grade level, including any required supplemental materials and associated online instruction.”
- Tuition and fees in various educational programs including a postsecondary educational instruction, a private tutoring program, or a virtual program.
- Fees for any nationally standardized, norm-referenced achievement test; AP exams; assessments related to postsecondary education; or industry certification exams.
- Contracted services provided by a public school, including classes.
- Tuition and fees for services by a choice navigator.
Under the requirements of the FTC scholarship, the parent will be able to purchase approved materials through the scholarship-granting organization online platform or seek reimbursement for items they purchase themselves.
Considering the Cost of Programs Offering “Free” State Funding
While the FTC scholarship could provide more funds for parents to educate their children at home, additional oversight and restrictions will be required from every parent who agrees to accept the money.
HSLDA believes that the freedom to customize your child’s curriculum, personalize their learning pace, and provide a safe, loving educational environment is invaluable. This is one reason why we fought so hard to separate home education programs in Florida from the FTC scholarship. We believe the true cost of the FTC scholarship, and other programs offering “free” state funding, is too high for kids. If you would like to freely educate your children at home without applying for government funds, you may be interested in checking out these resources: you can explore creative ways to make your homeschool budget go further here and you can find out how to apply for an HSLDA Compassion Curriculum Grant here.