chart showing scholarship program growth over past decade

More than 100,000 new students: Breaking down the historic growth in Florida school choice scholarships

Florida is making school choice history this year, awarding more than 455,000 scholarships to help students access education options of their choice.

These big numbers are catching lots of attention, both around the state and around the country. They underscore the impact of HB 1, signed earlier this year by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The new law made any student eligible for scholarships and gave families more flexibility in using scholarship funds.

Three facts help put the magnitude of that legislation in perspective:

  1. Florida is now home to the nation’s first-, second- and third-largest education choice scholarship programs.
  2. More than twice as many students are using education scholarship accounts in Florida as in the other 49 states combined.
  3. The combined enrollment increases in Florida’s scholarship programs in the first year after HB 1 became law exceed the total enrollment in the state with the second-highest number of participating students, Arizona.

Florida’s scale emerges, in part, from the fact that it’s the third-largest state. But these numbers also reflect two and half decades of continuous leadership by governors and legislators striving to make our state a national leader.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will unpack the numbers.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share more granular data that illuminate the scale of Florida’s programs, the new law’s impact and the new options it made available to students and families, as well as key opportunities for improving our programs.

The numbers described here may continue to shift slightly over the course of the school year. Numbers we report for the current school year only include scholarships awarded by Step Up For Students. They do not include scholarships awarded by the AAA Scholarship Foundation, the other nonprofit organization approved to administer scholarships in Florida.

More families are receiving scholarships, cementing Florida’s status as a national leader

Three major programs account for the bulk of Florida’s education choice scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit scholarship, the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities.

All these programs have grown under HB 1. Here’s what we know so far.

As of Monday, Step Up for Students has awarded more than 455,000 scholarships.

If a student is awarded a scholarship, that means they’ve applied for a scholarship and Step Up for Students has determined that they qualify.

Here is the breakdown by program:

Tax credit + Educational Options Scholarships: 353,524 awarded

Unique Abilities: 83,941 awarded

In addition, 18,688 students have been awarded Personalized Education Program (PEP) scholarships. These flexible scholarships can be used for education-related expenses of the family’s choice. Students in this program do not enroll in full-time public or private school.

Not all students who are awarded a scholarship actually use it. That brings us to the next key set of numbers: students who have enrolled.

The scholarships are growing by historic proportions

This year, so far, enrollment in the two largest scholarship programs looks like this:

Tax Credit: 126,028 (up from about 97,000 last year)

Educational Options: 130,599 (up from about 83,000)

These 256,627 students have been awarded scholarships and enrolled in a private school of their choice.

HB 1 expanded these students’ options for using their scholarships. If they have money left over after paying their school’s tuition, they can use those funds to pay for tutoring, supplemental curriculum, online courses, public school services, and other qualifying expenses.

Keen readers will note the gap between the 353,524 students awarded tax credit and Educational Options scholarships and the number who actually use their scholarships to enroll in private schools.

This gap, which currently stands at more than 96,000 students, will be an important number to watch in the coming years.

There are multiple reasons a student might be awarded a scholarship but choose not to use it. Their parents might have decided a local public school or traditional home education program was a better fit. They might have come off the waiting list for a charter school or a district choice program over the summer.

But many of these students likely received a scholarship but then discovered that the private school they were hoping to attend did not have any more room, or otherwise could not find an option that met their needs.

In other words, the number of students who were awarded a scholarship but did not enroll ought to serve as a beacon to private schools, education entrepreneurs, and groups interested in working as choice navigators: Florida families want more education options and more help finding them.

More flexible options: Unique Abilities and Personalized Education Programs

A total of 102,629 students have been awarded PEP and Unique Abilities scholarships, which they can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, curriculum, and other education-related expenses.

Because students who use PEP or Unique Abilities scholarships do not have to enroll full-time in a participating school, the number of students awarded scholarships under these programs and the number who ultimately use them tend to track much more closely.

Combining the students awarded scholarships in these two programs with the total enrolled in private schools using tax credit and Educational Options scholarships brings a total of 359,256 students participating in the state’s main scholarship programs this school year.

That’s a one-year increase of more than 100,000 students.

These numbers may shift slightly during the course of the school year, but they clearly show history-making growth in the number of students using school choice scholarships.

chart showing scholarship program growth over past decade

This chart shows the growth in Florida’s education choice scholarship programs since 2012. The McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities was merged into the Unique Abilities scholarship program in 2022.

*2023-24 numbers are still preliminary, and reflect scholarships provided by Step Up For Students only. 

There is an ample fiscal cushion in place to absorb this growth

Florida lawmakers budgeted responsibly to absorb the growth in scholarship programs and protect school districts’ financial stability.

The state’s spending plan for 2023-24 assumed 127,188 students would use tax credit scholarships, 134,206 would use educational options scholarships, and 93,357 students would use unique abilities scholarships.

Those forecasts appear to be holding up.

But lawmakers also created another cushion. They set aside $350 million to provide an additional backstop for public school funding. These financial safeguards show it’s possible to support a growing movement of educational options and protect the finances of public schools at the same time.

In addition, since their inception, the scholarships have been structured to avoid any impact on school districts’ local funding. The scholarship students do not get any funds districts receive from the federal government, or any of the special taxes collected in many districts to support public school teacher salaries, school construction and other purposes.

The numbers discussed in this post should be considered preliminary. They will continue to firm up over the course of the school year, and we will continue to provide updates as well as additional details.

Future installments of this series will go deep on key issues including geographic breakdowns, student demographics, and what the numbers tell us about the demand for educational options, as well as some of the smaller scholarship programs not discussed in this post, like the growing program to reimburse families for transportation to public schools of their choice.

If you have questions or issues you would like us to detail further, please reach out:

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)