Florida Senate approves bill that would expand unique abilities scholarships, clarify dual enrollment rules

Students who were not able to receive funding this year from the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities could get some relief if the Florida Legislature approves Senate Bill 2524, which won unanimous approval in that chamber Thursday

The bill, which would raise the limit on the number of students who can receive the state scholarships from 20,000 to 26,500 during the 2022-23 school year, also addresses the needs of struggling young readers and includes new provisions for private school students in dual enrollment programs.

The boost in the number of scholarship recipients does not include students in certain categories, such as those who are adopted or in foster care, are dependents in military families, and those who received specialized services in a voluntary pre-kindergarten program, have an Individualized Education Plan or who previously received funding from the McKay Scholarship Program, which will merge with the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Unique Abilities program beginning with the next school year.

The move would fund students who applied but did not receive money this year due to lack of funding and is expected to cost about $16 million, according to a state analysis of the bill.

State figures show that FES program scholarships awarded through December 2021 for the 2021-2022 school year were 24,694 for Unique Abilities option scholarship recipients. As of January 2022, more than 6,400 students eligible for a Unique Abilities scholarship were placed on a waitlist.

Starting in the 2023-24 school year, the maximum number of students participating under the Unique Abilities option would be allowed to annually increase by 1% of the state’s total exceptional student education enrollment, not including gifted students, approximately 4,500 students per year.  An eligible student who meets specified requirements is excluded from the maximum number of students.

The bill also includes language that further hones legislation passed last year that established a $15.5 million state fund to cover the costs of private school students who take dual enrollment courses that allow them simultaneous earn college credit while in high school.

Under the bill, private school and homeschool students would receive free instructional materials for dual enrollment courses. Another provision, opposed by a statewide private school advocacy group because it fears it will have the effect of limiting private school students to dual enrollment classes outside of traditional school hours, remained in the bill upon approval Thursday.

Although the bill received a vote on the Senate floor, its fate remains uncertain. The bill will be sent to the House of Representatives and a conference committee, which will draft a final version based on what is approved in both chambers before a final vote is taken.