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Legislature approves voucher bill for students with unique abilities

In a special session, the Florida House and Senate unanimously backed bills enabling tens of thousands more students to receive scholarships.

Photo by Ben White

By LuAnne Schendel November 2023
Originally published in reimaginEd

The Florida House and Senate unanimously backed bills designed to make sure any student who wants an education choice scholarship for students with unique abilities can get one.

House Bill 1, the landmark legislation passed earlier this year, raised the cap on enrollment in the state’s Unique Abilities scholarship program and ensured the number of available scholarships would grow more quickly in future years.

State economists pegged the maximum number of scholarships for the current school year at 40,913.

However, that number does not apply to students who previously enrolled in the phased-out McKay Scholarship program, attended public schools the previous year, were adopted, live in foster care, are children of active-duty military or law enforcement, or received specialized services for students with disabilities through the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program.

Those provisions allow tens of thousands more students to receive scholarships.

So far this year, Step Up For Students, has awarded more than 85,000 scholarships under the program, an increase of approximately 17,000 from the previous year.

Despite that major growth, demand for scholarships has outstripped supply. Lawmakers, in town this week for a special session, approved legislation to fix that.

HB 3-C would allow scholarship funding organizations, including Step Up, to work with the Department of Education to determine how many more students qualify for scholarships this school year. Students who apply by Dec. 15 will be able to receive a scholarship.

Funding for the increase in scholarships would be absorbed by a $350 million fiscal cushion that lawmakers have already set aside to help manage the growth of scholarship programs under HB 1.

In subsequent years, the number of available scholarships would continue to increase by 3% of the number of students with disabilities in the state, as the current law allows.

The measure is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk.

“I know so many families at home whose children are going to benefit by this,” said Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers when House approved the bill 111-0 on Tuesday. “They’ve been reaching out, and what can we do and those funds are going to go to great use. As the stepmother of a child with a unique ability, I know firsthand how important every resource is to provide to families.”

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