Legislative Updates

What to know

On May 11, 2021, Governor DeSantis signed legislation that expands access to education choice scholarships. These changes will go into effect on July 1, 2021.

The new legislation allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Note: We are diligently updating our systems to account for the new eligibility criteria.

Following is a list of students eligible as of July 1, 2021 and next steps they may take:

  • Students of families with higher income (i.e. nearly $100,000 for a family of 4) – FAMILIES MAY APPLY NOW
  • Siblings of Gardiner Scholarship students – FAMILIES MAY CLICK HERE TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN THEY MAY APPLY
  • Dependent children of a member of the United States Armed Forces – FAMILIES MAY CLICK HERE TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN THEY MAY APPLY
  • Students with one of the following diagnoses: speech impairment; language impairment; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; emotional or behavioral disability; or specific learning disability, including but not limited to dyslexia, dyscalculia, or developmental aphasiaFAMILIES MAY CLICK HERE TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN THEY MAY APPLY

Note: Students currently enrolled in private school are now eligible, too!

This new legislation also consolidates the number of scholarship programs by rolling the Gardiner Scholarship and McKay Scholarship into the Family Empowerment Scholarship. This change will happen in two phases:

For the 2021-22 school year, the Family Empowerment Scholarship will expand to include an Education Savings Account for children with unique abilities (or special needs) along with its existing option for K-12 private school. Students currently benefiting from a Gardiner Scholarship would roll into the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year after July 1 (as long as they have submitted their renewal application), as would any families that will be applying based on current Gardiner eligibility categories. The authorized uses of funds for this option remains the same as they are currently for Gardiner. Additionally, the new legislation will eliminate the prior public school attendance requirement for the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

For the 2022-23 school year, the McKay Scholarship program will be rolled into the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Students benefiting from the McKay Scholarship at that time will be transitioned to the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Step Up For Students will be hosting informational webinars about scholarship program changes due to this new legislation. Please continue to monitor your email or check back here for updates as we continue to gather information.

To view legislative impacts by scholarship program, please click each scholarship name to expand.

The qualifying household income level has increased, allowing families of higher income access to the scholarship. The household income eligibility criteria has risen to nearly $100,000 for a family of 4. If you qualify under these new guidelines, you may click here to APPLY TODAY. Please click here to view the updated income eligibility criteria for all household sizes.

Priority will be given to students who are under the 185% of federal poverty guidelines ($49,025 for a family of 4).

Average award amount for the 2021-22 school year is anticipated to increase. However, award amounts will not be determined until after the state budget has been signed. This is separate from what Governor DeSantis signed on May 11 and may happen in early July. Please continue to check back for updates.

Beginning on July 1, 2021, the Gardiner Scholarship Program will be rolled into the Family Empowerment Scholarship option for students with unique abilities/special needs.

If your student is a Gardiner Scholarship recipient for the 2020-21 school year, please take a moment to renew your student’s scholarship for the 2021-22 school year if you have not already. (You will NOT need to apply for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year. Step Up For Students will transition your child to the Family Empowerment Scholarship once the law goes into effect after July 1, 2021.)

Please click on the Family Empowerment Scholarship banner for more information. Renew your scholarship by clicking here.

Beginning on July 1, 2021, the Family Empowerment Scholarship will expand to include current Gardiner Scholarship students and add new eligibility criteria.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship will have two types of awards depending on how a student qualifies for the scholarship.

Option 1: Private school or transportation to a public school

Eligibility requirements to enroll at a private school or for transportation to a public school:

  • The qualifying household income level has increased, allowing families of higher income access to the scholarship. The household income eligibility criteria has risen to nearly $100,000 for a family of 4. If you qualify under the new guidelines, we recommend applying today by clicking here.
  • Student is currently placed, or during the previous school year was placed, in foster care or out-of-home care.
  • The student is a sibling of a student who is participating in the Family Empowerment Scholarship (including renewal Gardiner students) and resides in the same household. This includes siblings of students who qualify based on a disability, regardless of household income. If you have a student eligible by this criteria, please click here to be notified when you may begin applying.
  • The student is a dependent child of a member of the United States Armed Forces, regardless of household income. If you have a student eligible by this criteria, please click here to be notified when you may begin applying.

Additional Information:

  • Priority will be given to students who are under the 185% of federal poverty guidelines ($49,025 for a family of 4).
  • Allows digital devices and internet access (when necessary) provided by the private school to be paid with the scholarship for income-based students.
  • Average award amount for 2021-22 school year is anticipated to increase. However, award amounts will not be determined until after the state budget has been signed. This is separate from what Governor DeSantis signed on May 11 and may happen in early July. Please continue to check back for updates.

Option 2: Education Savings Account (ESA) (currently known as the Gardiner Scholarship)

Following are the eligibility requirements for the Education Savings Account for students with unique abilities/special needs. If you have a student eligible by criteria with an asterisk, please click here to be notified when you may begin applying.

  • The student is 3 years old on or before September 1, is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12, in the state of Florida or is under 22 on or before September 1
  • Has one of the following disabilities:
    1. Autism Spectrum disorder
    2. Cerebral palsy
    3. Down syndrome
    4. Intellectual disability
    5. Speech impairment*
    6. Language impairment*
    7. Orthopedic impairment*
    8. Other health impairment*
    9. Emotional or a behavioral disability*
    10. Specific learning disability, including, but not limited to dyslexia, dyscalculia, or developmental aphasia*
    11. Phelan-McDermid syndrome
    12. Prader-Willi syndrome
    13. Spina bifida
    14. High-risk child
    15. Muscular dystrophy
    16. Williams syndrome
    17. Rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000 individuals in the United States, as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders
    18. Anaphylaxis
    19. Hearing impaired
    20. Visually impaired
    21. Traumatic brain injured
    22. Hospital or homebound
    23. Dual sensory impaired
  • The student has an IEP or has received a diagnosis from a licensed physician or psychologist.

Students who qualify for an Education Savings Account (ESA) may use their funds for the following purposes (same as the current Gardiner Scholarship):

  1. Instructional materials, including digital devices, digital periphery devices, and assistive technology devices that allow a student to access instruction or instructional content and training on the use of and maintenance agreements for these devices.
  2. Curriculum
  3. Specialized services by approved providers that may include, but not limited to;
    1. Applied behavior analysis services
    2. Speech-language pathology
    3. Occupational therapy
    4. Physical therapy
    5. Listening and spoken language services
  4. Tuition or fees associated with full-time or part-time enrollment in:
    1. a home education program
    2. an eligible private school
    3. an eligible postsecondary educational institution or a program offered by the postsecondary educational institution
    4. a private tutoring program
    5. a virtual program offered by a department-approved private online provider that meets the provider qualifications specified in s. 1002.45(2)(a), the Florida Virtual School as a private paying student, or an approved online course offered pursuant to s. 1003.499 or s. 1004.0961.
  5. Fees for nationally standardized, norm-referenced achievement tests, Advanced Placement Examinations, industry certification examinations, assessments related to postsecondary education, or other assessments.
  6. Contributions to the Stanley G. Tate Florida Prepaid College Program,
  7. Contracted services provided by a public school or school district, including classes.
  8. Tuition and fees for part-time tutoring services
  9. Fees for specialized summer education programs.
  10. Fees for specialized after-school education programs.
  11. Transition services provided by job coaches.
  12. Fees for an annual evaluation of educational progress by a state-certified teacher
  13. Tuition and fees associated with programs offered by Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program providers
  14. Fees for services provided at a center that is a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
  15. Fees for services provided by a therapist who is certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists or credentialed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc.

For more details on this list, please see the parent handbook after July 1, 2021.

Additional Information:

  • Aligns the formula used to calculate the scholarship amounts for the Gardiner and McKay programs to the school district formulas and provides a grandfathering provision to ensure the same level of funding for the current Gardiner Scholarship students and McKay students. ESA funds would be deposited into each student’s account on a quarterly basis.
  • Note: We will not know exactly how much the scholarship amounts will change or exactly how grandfathering will be implemented until the legislature finalizes the state budget which may happen in early July, but we estimate that the scholarship amounts for the majority of scholarship students will increase.
  • Removes the requirement that the sworn compliance statement be notarized for the Family Empowerment Scholarship ESA program.

Average award amount for the 2021-22 school year is anticipated to increase. However, award amounts will not be determined until after the state budget has been signed. This is separate from what Governor DeSantis signed on May 11 and may happen in early July.  Please continue to check back for updates.

No impact at this time. Please continue to check back for updates.

For the 2021-22 school year, there is no change to the McKay Scholarship program. The program will continue to be managed by the Florida Department of Education. If you have already applied for the McKay Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year, you do not need to take further action.

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, the McKay Scholarship will be rolled into the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Florida Department of Education and Step Up For Students will communicate with scholarship families as this time nears.  

Will the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship change to a state funded program?

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship remains a tax credit scholarship funded by corporate donations.

Will any more Gardiner students come off the waitlist for the 2020-21 school year?

There will not be any additional students funded from the waitlist for the 2020-21 school year.

Would the Gardiner Scholarship students receive their funds quarterly into their accounts instead of in one lump sum?

Yes, the Gardiner Scholarship would be merged into the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year with scholarship funds being deposited quarterly into scholarship accounts.

Will any remaining funds in Gardiner Accounts automatically roll over into a Family Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Account? 

 Gardiner students who renew their scholarship will be transitioned into the Family Empowerment Scholarship and their funds will have their remaining Gardiner funds rolled over into the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year. 

Does the timeframe for inactivity of the Gardiner Scholarship accounts carry over to the Family Empowerment Scholarship? (i.e. if an account has been inactive for 1 year on Gardiner, does that count toward the timeframe for Family Empowerment to determine inactivity and account closure?). 

Yes, because the account carries over, any inactivity also carries over.

If a Gardiner student does not renew for the 2021-22 school year, will their funds stay in their Education Savings Accounts? 

Step Up is working to clarify this process with the Florida Department of Education.

When McKay Scholarship students enter the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) in the 2022-23 school year, will Gardiner students have to compete with McKay students for the same spots as new families? 

No, when the McKay Scholarship merges into the Family Empowerment Scholarship in the 2022-23 school year, all McKay students in the 21-22 school year will not count against the FES student limit under the cap.  This means that the McKay students will not use any of the spaces available for other students. Gardiner students in 20-21 would have priority for spaces under the FES cap in 21-22, and would have priority as renewal students under the cap in future years. 

Are the sibling(s) of Gardiner students eligible for a scholarship?  

Beginning on July 1, 2021, siblings who reside in the same household as a student who qualifies for the Family Empowerment Scholarship program are eligible under the private school or transportation  portion of the program. This includes siblings of Gardiner students who renew for the 2021-22 school year. 

Does the child who does not have a disability need to income-qualify? 

The sibling qualifies regardless of the household income for an award under the private school or transportation portion of the scholarship (not the Education Savings Account program for students with special needs).  

Do the siblings of Gardiner students have to attend the same private school?  

No. 

What if the Gardiner student is home educated, but the sibling does not have a disability, is the sibling eligible for an Education Savings Account to be home educated?   

No. The sibling qualifies for the private school or transportation portion of the program. If using the private school option, the student must attend an eligible, participating private school.  

Are siblings of students with disabilities counted against the maximum number of scholarships available for the Education Savings Accounts?  

The siblings of student with disabilities are counted toward the maximum number of scholarship available under private school and transportation portion of the Family Empowerment Scholarship and the funds may only be used for private school scholarships or transportation to an out-of-district public school (Not the Education Savings Account for special needs students). 

When will we know what the scholarship amounts will be for the 2021-22 school year?

We will get this information from the Department of Education in July, as we do each year.

Will Gardiner Scholarship students whose scholarship amount will be grandfathered into the Family Empowerment Scholarship, only be grandfathered in for one year?

No, renewal Gardiner Scholarship students will keep their grandfathered scholarship amount from the 2020-21 school year as long as that amount is higher than the amount for any future year.

How do I apply for the new Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with special needs?

More details about when and how families may apply will be shared in the near future. Please click here to sign up to be notified.

How do I submit an application for the siblings of my Gardiner student?

More details about when and how families may apply will be shared in the near future. Please click here to sign up to be notified.

Can students with disabilities use scholarship funds to attend a school that does not meet the requirements for scholarship participation? 

No, in order to use scholarship funds at a private school, the school must meet the requirements outlined in s. 1002.421, F.S. 

Do the McKay students have to attend a private school in 2021-2022?  

Yes.  

Will the McKay Scholarship students be eligible for an Education Savings Account in 2022-2023?  

Yes. 

Will all students with any disabilities be eligible for an Education Savings Account in 2022-2023?  

The new law provides a list of eligible disabilities. A new student must have one of the listed disabilities to qualify for a Family Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Account in 2021-22. 

Will students with a 504 plan be eligible for a Family Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Account? 

Students with a 504 plan who attended public school during the prior school year will be eligible under the McKay scholarship for the 2021-22 school year. Students with a 504 plan are not eligible under the Family Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Account. 

Will McKay students be exempt from the maximum number of scholarships available for the 2022-23 school year?  

Yes. McKay students who roll over to the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2022-23 will not count against the maximum number of scholarships available for students with special needs/unique abilities.  

Can devices and internet access be covered by the scholarship?  If so, for which programs?

This legislation allows for digital devices and internet access to be covered by the Family Empowerment Scholarship utilizing the private school scholarship. To be covered, devices and internet access must be included in the school’s tuition and fees. More details to come. Family Empowerment Scholarship students utilizing the Education Savings Account scholarship (including renewal Gardiner students) may continue to use funds for digital devices.

Can a summer academic camp be covered with Gardiner funding?

This may currently be covered, but it may require special documentation from the student’s therapist, tutor, etc.

Will distance learning still be funded next year?

Distance learning exceptions will need to be provided by the Florida Department of Education. There are no updates for the 2021-22 school year at this time.

Is the phrase “dependent child of a member of the United States Armed Forces” intended to include only active-duty members of the Armed Forces (i.e. not Reserve, National Guard, veterans, retirees, etc.)?  

Yes.

Does the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship still get the 2 Florida Virtual School courses? Does the Family Empowerment Scholarship?

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship still includes language to allow students to take no more than  2 state-funded virtual courses. The Family Empowerment Scholarship for income-based students does not include that language. Students who participate in the FES ESA for unique abilities/special needs will be able to use their scholarship funds for the Florida Virtual School as a private-paying student.  Schools may also want to consider building Florida Virtual School courses into their tuition and fee schedule.

Who will administer the Family Empowerment Scholarship funds to families and schools?

Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs), such as Step Up For Students, will administer funds.

Does the audit process change for schools to once every 3 years?

The Agreed Upon Procedures rules for participating private schools are not changing. The reference to the audit process is for Scholarship Funding Organizations, such as Step Up For Students.

Will schools be required to take all scholarships?

Schools can choose which scholarship programs they wish to participate in through the Department of Education.

Updated as of 5.13.2021