The Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee on Wednesday approved a bill to expand eligibility for educational scholarships, enhance administrative processes, and reallocate funds from the Hope Scholarship Program to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
The Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee on Wednesday approved legislation to broaden the eligibility standards for various scholarship programs.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Josie Tomkow, would expand and modify existing educational scholarship programs within the state, targeting the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for students attending private schools (FES-EO), and Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with disabilities (FES-UA).
If adopted, the bill would additionally extend eligibility for the scholarships to include children of active-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces who are stationed in Florida or have Florida listed as their state of residence or home of record.
“Our job as state legislators and as the state appropriators is to make sure that those dollars that are spent are truly to educate your child and further their success to make sure that they are set up to have all opportunities ahead of them as possible,” Tomkow said while introducing the measure to fellow committee members.
In addressing the bill, Tomkow recognized existing challenges in the timely disbursement of funds administered following previous school choice legislation and detailed the bill’s approach to establishing clear deadlines for scholarship applications and renewals, ensuring more efficient timelines.
“We have a very big responsibility,” said Tomkow. “We do have a large budget. We do have a lot of dollars that we’re responsible for and making sure that they are going to the proper places is something that I take personally.”
The legislation also introduces several administrative changes to the scholarship programs, including the establishment of specific deadlines for the application and renewal processes managed by Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs) and parents. Additionally, the bill requires SFOs to provide more comprehensive reports, offering greater transparency in the application process and the allocation of funds.
The bill would also terminate the Hope Scholarship Program (HSP), with its funding being reallocated to the FTC program in order to broaden the reach of the FTC program to a larger number of students. The bill’s fiscal impact is estimated at $106.0 million
Despite its unanimous passage, the bill proposal faced a series of questions and criticisms, reflecting concerns about its potential impacts and implementation. A primary area of scrutiny was the timeliness of fund disbursement by SFOs. Committee members raised concerns about whether the proposed seven-business-day timeline for SFOs to disburse funds for full-time tuition and fees, following approval by parents and schools, was adequate.
Furthermore, the expansion of eligibility criteria, especially the inclusion of children of active-duty U.S. Armed Forces members and the adjustment in age limitations for young students with disabilities, sparked debate.
Questions were raised about the potential impact of these changes on the demand for scholarships and the sustainability of the program. There were also discussions on the level of transparency and accountability in the administration of the scholarship programs. Further concerns were articulated regarding the new reporting requirements for SFOs and the processes for gathering feedback from various stakeholders.
With its passage, the bill now moves to the House Education & Employment Committee.