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Florida lawmakers wrap up session by passing school choice revision bill

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(The Center Square) — Florida wrapped up its legislative session on Friday, and this week, before leaving Tallahassee, lawmakers passed a revision of the state’s school choice programs.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 89-18 on Thursday, and if signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the legislation would go into effect on July 1.

House Bill 1403 is sponsored by state Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City. It would revise both contributions and provisions for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, the Hope Scholarship Program, virtual instruction program providers, private school requirements and students in personalized learning programs.

Last year, Florida lawmakers passed one of the largest expansions of school choice in the nation, HB 1, which enables more parents to choose the education that meets the needs of their children. However, feedback from constituents has revealed that there have been issues with providing funds within an expected timeframe.

Scholarship program funds are able to be used by parents on a range of educational tools, including private schools, tutors and educational materials for homeschooled students. Students were also able to enroll in a school outside of their district.

During the bill’s passage through committee, Tomkow said that this bill would remedy some of the funding issues by establishing separate application and renewal deadlines for the various programs so that renewals can be funded earlier.

Applications received after the deadline would be considered for the next school year. Payment for full-time tuition and fees must be made by the scholarship funding organization within 7 business days of approval.

To address concerns about educational options available to students, Tomkow said that the bill would allow personalized education program students to use their funds for when instruction is provided away from the school under a student learning plan.

Tomkow added that because of the popularity of the Family Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities, overall funding would increase the annual growth of new FES-UA scholarships from 3% to 5%. If demand ever exceeds 95% of capacity again, the bill allows for an additional 1% increase the following year.

The bill would also remove an age limitation, allowing three and four-year-old students with disabilities to access scholarships and further increase transparency by requiring scholarship funding organizations to report on performance metrics related to applications and reimbursements.