Florida more than doubles the amount of vouchers for homeschooling

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School books. By Sean Kinane /WMNF News (2015)

By Ryan Dailey ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A state voucher program that began in the 2023-2024 school year is on pace to double in size — at least — as applications roll in from families who educate children at home and are seeking funds to make a range of purchases.

What’s known as the Personalized Education Program provides voucher funds to students who are not enrolled full-time at public or private schools. The program was established through a 2023 law (HB 1) that massively expanded the state’s voucher programs.

The law allowed for the Personalized Education Program to provide vouchers for 20,000 students in its inaugural year, and the program almost hit its cap, with vouchers for 19,514 students funded.

The program is allowed to grow by 40,000 students a year under the law, meaning the maximum capacity would grow in the 2024-2025 school year to 60,000 students.

As of Thursday, 39,690 applications had been submitted for the coming school year, and 31,991 vouchers had been awarded — with months to go for applications to come in, potentially increasing the number toward the maximum of 60,000.

Step Up for Students, an organization that administers vouchers for the state, will continue to accept applications through the beginning of the school year. More applications come in every day.

Scott Kent, director of media and strategic communications for Step Up for Students, said in an email to The News Service of Florida that not every scholarship that gets awarded ultimately results in money being used. That means the final number of PEP vouchers funded next school year will not become clear for months.

“As with every scholarship program, not every student who is awarded a scholarship uses it,” Kent said.

Money from the Personalized Education Program can be used to purchase such things as instructional materials, virtual education courses, tutoring and contracted services at public schools. It is provided to students through what are known as education savings accounts.

Money for the PEP vouchers comes from the longstanding Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides tax credits to businesses that contribute money for vouchers. Voucher amounts typically range from about $7,000 to $9,000 per student, depending on what counties they live in.

But a notice on the Step Up for Students website said 2024-2025 award amounts will not be finalized until after Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a state budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1. As of Tuesday morning, the Legislature had not formally sent the budget to DeSantis.

A fact sheet on the Florida Department of Education website describes PEP recipients as part of a broader home-education population. It says the PEP program “was created to serve Florida’s home education population who would like access to an education saving account to fund their student’s learning.”

Families whose students receive PEP vouchers have to follow various requirements, such as submitting “student learning plans” each year to Step Up for Students. Parents develop the plans to guide instruction for students and to address needed services, according to the Department of Education fact sheet.

Meanwhile, the overall number of home-schooled students has more than doubled in Florida during the past decade.

DeSantis on Friday posted information on social media that said 77,000 Florida students were homeschooled 10 years ago, compared to 155,000 home-schooled students in 2023.

DeSantis also spoke Thursday at the Florida Homeschool Convention in Orlando, where he touted Florida as the “number one state for home-school in all of these United States.”

“When you think about education and your kids, as a parent, the kids are in many ways an open book. And do you want to turn them over for eight hours a day to some indoctrination factory? Of course not. And so you want to be able to have choice to be able to direct the education and upbringing of your kids,” DeSantis said.

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