Last year alone, seven states – including Florida – enacted new school choice programs with an additional 10 states expanding existing programs earning 2023 the moniker “the Year of School Choice.”
During the 2023 Legislative Session, Florida lawmakers passed a universal school choice bill that was quickly signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis making private school vouchers available to all students, regardless of their family’s income.
Florida students in grades K-12 can participate in four school choice programs — two Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a tax credit scholarship program and a Hope Scholarship Program to help bullied students.
Families are quickly enrolling in these programs. An EdChoice report revealed enrollment in the expanded Family Empowerment Scholarship Program increased 30% since the last school year, with over 85,000 students enrolled in the 2023-24 school year.
The significant increase of parents and students taking advantage of the opportunity even led to the Legislature approving a bill during a 2023 Special Session that removed the cap on vouchers eligible for special needs students for the current school year which is expected to add nearly 9,000 more students to the state’s current program — which already had nearly 41,000 students receiving help.
While Florida’s menu of school choice offerings is undeniably popular, the programs are not without limitations. That’s especially true for the state’s ESA programs.
Currently, Florida families can use their ESA dollars to pay for pre-approved private school tuition, homeschooling materials or other school-related costs.
This program has allowed many students to get an education tailored to their needs, with one caveat: The money can’t be used to attend a full-time online private school. If that’s their school choice, they’re on their own for the tuition.
Florida is known as a leader on school choice, with legislatures far and wide looking at the Sunshine State’s innovative policies as they design their own programs to better serve students and their families. But in this case, states like Iowa, South Carolina and Arizona outshine the Sunshine State.
Despite not receiving the same financial assistance as students who attend in-person private schools, an estimated 40,000 Florida families have a student enrolled in a full-time online school, including the state’s own Florida Virtual School.
By passing universal school choice in 2023, the Legislature has already signaled it’s aware all children are different and what works for one may be a poor fit for another. That same philosophy is at the core of why these Florida families are paying to send their kids to private online schools, and their reasons are as unique as their children — some of these youngsters have physical disabilities that make in-person attendance infeasible, others face cognitive barriers, and the list goes on.
While some may roll their eyes at the concept of kids attending online school, these programs are no joke — especially for those kids who have struggled with education. Students can’t get away with scrolling Instagram or browsing TikTok and expect to get a diploma. Their curricula is just as rigorous as in-person schools, and the technology underpinning them allows parents and teachers to closely monitor all aspects of a student’s educational experience, including screen time and content.
The exclusion of online private schools from Florida scholarship programs has sparked debate among education experts and parents alike. It also dents Florida’s otherwise sterling reputation as a state unafraid to be the vanguard of the school choice movement. Online private school is a choice — a valid one — and many argue that the state’s commitment to school choice should extend to them, too.
Further, proponents of online private education emphasize that the high-quality curricula and specialized programs available at these schools are sometimes not available in traditional public schools. In parts of Florida, an online private school may be the only option that can cater to students with specific interests, learning styles or academic needs, providing a more tailored and personalized educational experience.
We know how many Florida families are paying out-of-pocket for online private school, but what we don’t know is how many more would choose the same educational path if they could shoulder the significant financial burden. We have a rough guestimate, though: Many.
The issue has also caught the attention of national school choice advocates.
In March, the Heritage Foundation’s Jason Bedrick wrote about the issue in the Daily Signal, saying it unnecessarily restricts parental choice, however “… policymakers could fix these issues easily by inserting language into the bill clarifying that, notwithstanding any other provision in Florida statute, families using education savings accounts may choose virtual learning …”
He wrote about the issue again earlier this month, saying, “If Florida wants to continue to be a leader in education, it must allow for greater innovation in how education is delivered.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council echoed Bedrick in a Jan. 16 post on X: “Florida families deserve the freedom to unleash their Empowerment Scholarship Accounts! Amend HB 1403 to let students learn in full-time private & religious virtual schools.” SB 7048 could also serve as an avenue for this important change.
But as the debate continues in Tallahassee, will lawmakers heed the warning of national advocates and fix this exclusion for families?