Lawmakers set sights on expanding vouchers for students with disabilities

by | Oct 31, 2023

  • Florida lawmakers will convene for a special session to discuss increased funding for the state’s school voucher program aimed at students with special needs.
  • Amid a surge in demand, experts and educators are calling for the removal of the participation cap on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities.
  • The move comes several months after a massive expansion of the state’s voucher programs, prompting questions about the future balance between public and private educational funding.

Florida appears poised to continue expanding educational options for its students, according to recent comments from state legislative leaders. A special session has been slated to begin on Nov. 6, with lawmakers preparing to address the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with disabilities, among other issues. The scholarship program is intended to provide additional funding for students with unique abilities, a group whose growing demand for scholarships has reportedly surpassed supply.

The legislative effort comes nearly seven months after the state undertook a sweeping expansion of its school voucher programs, an advancement applauded by many advocates for school choice. Yet, amid this growth, there is increasing attention on the limitations that the current system imposes on students with special needs. Specifically, the cap on the number of students eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities has faced criticism from some educators and parents.

While the 2021 law that created the Unique Abilities scholarship set an initial cap of 40,000 students for the current school year, it did allow for annual increases based on the state’s overall enrollment in special education. Eligibility for the program mandates that students must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a diagnosis of a disability from a licensed physician or psychologist. Nonetheless, critics argue that the cap unjustly limits opportunities for students with the greatest needs.

Payments to participating schools have also seen delays, adding to the concerns. Educational administrators have reported lagging payments, highlighting operational hitches that could impact the quality of education delivered. Families have faced delays as well, affecting their plans and causing additional emotional stress.

Earlier this year, the state legislature made significant changes to its scholarship programs, notably eliminating income requirements for applicants. The move aimed to open educational choices to a broader spectrum of families, including those of middle-class income levels. These changes were met with mixed reviews, with opponents arguing that the elimination of income limits could dilute the focus on lower-income families in need of financial support.

However, the overall trend is clear: demand for school choice in Florida is surging. Applications for scholarships for the 2023-24 school year have seen a nearly 43% uptick from the previous year. The growth is a testament to the heightened interest in educational alternatives in the state, and critics point out that this surge places additional strain on an already stretched system.

As lawmakers convene for the upcoming special session, all eyes will be on how they plan to address these various challenges. Stakeholders from all corners — parents, educators, and policy experts — will be watching keenly as legislators attempt to balance burgeoning demand with practical constraints. It’s a tightrope that the state must navigate carefully, particularly when the education and future of Florida’s youngest residents hang in the balance.


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