New purchasing guides help families navigate Florida’s expanding education choice scholarships

Sarah Clanton, blind and developmentally delayed since birth, gives commands to her horse, Cappy, at the Emerald M. Therapeutic Riding Center as owner and therapist Lisa Michelangelo, left, lends support. Horse therapy, which makes Sarah stronger and improves her sensory skills, is eligible for reimbursement for families using the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities.

Emily Hamilton’s two kids learn most things best by doing. 

For science, that means making smears on slides, dissecting everything from seeds to mollusks, and conducting chemistry experiments with beakers and flasks. For her daughter’s math, that means using manipulatives such as dominoes, blocks or games.  

The costs for those supplies add up quickly for Hamilton, who with her husband homeschools their two children, Wesley, 12, and Holly, 8. Both receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities, which allows families to personalize their students’ education by directing funds to where they’re needed most.  

The funds can be used for a combination of programs and approved expenses including therapists, specialists, curriculum, private school, and more.  

“Having unique learners often requires unique approaches to learning, and oftentimes that is through hands-on problem solving, experiential methods that require all of kinds of components to bring to life,” said Hamilton, who pays out of pocket to cover costs that are more than the scholarships are worth. For students with disabilities, scholarships average about $10,000 per student.  

This year, new legislation extended the flexibility enjoyed by parents like Hamilton to all the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. 

That increased flexibility can be a boon for families who choose to assemble a range of different learning options for their children. But it can also create risks of confusion or costly mistakes. For example, a family might make a purchase they think is reimbursable, only to learn later that it isn’t considered an eligible expense.  

To help families make the best possible use of their increased flexibility, and minimize risks and confusion, the new legislation required scholarship funding organizations to create new purchasing guides that would provide clarity to parents on what education-related expenses are eligible expenses for their respective scholarship.  

“We wanted to provide clarity,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, Florida’s largest scholarship funding organization and host of this blog.  

“We want to provide as much flexibility as possible for families so they can customize the education of their child but at the same time, we want to protect the public good and make sure the tax dollars are being spent in the most efficient and effective way possible.” 

Parent needs, legislative intent and continuous feedback 

There are now two purchasing guides. One is for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options and Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. These programs are open to all students and include those choosing the new Personalized Education Program. The other guide is for families using the   Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities. The latter program, aimed at students with special needs, offers larger funding amounts and a wider range of eligible uses. 

Florida, which has offered ESAs to families of students with unique abilities since that program was created in 2014, has always had rules for how those families could use the money.  

“We had nine years of learning to help us develop the new purchasing guides,” said Tuthill. To develop the purchasing guides, the team also examined programs in other states, such as Arizona, which passed ESA legislation in 2011 and offered universal eligibility in 2022.  

Step Up For Students also offers an online purchasing platform for families. The goods and services on the platform are offered by approved vendors. Families don’t have to use the online marketplace and can be reimbursed for expenses if they find other items that fit their child’s needs, or identical items available through other vendors for a lower price. 

“A lot of our families do and will continue to receive funds through reimbursement,” said Catherine Bridgers, senior director for process improvement and risk management at Step Up For Students and leader of the teams that produced the guides. “We don’t want to put families in the position of interpreting statutes themselves or not having clear guidance in making purchases.” 

Tuthill said the guides also help families avoid costly purchases that aren’t allowed and end up being denied.  

“We want to minimize disputes between families and their scholarship funding organizations,” he said. However, he added that the guides are “living documents” and will continue to be revised.  

Among states with ESA programs, Florida is unique in the way it relies on scholarship funding organizations to determine which uses of scholarship funding are allowed under state law. In other states, government agencies make those determinations

The new law requires scholarship funding organizations to agree on purchasing guidelines that will be shared with the state Department of Education and published by the end of the year. Step Up For Students is coordinating with the state’s other scholarship funding organization, AAA, to produce high-level guidelines. However, eligible expenses may differ based on each organization’s policies. Families should check with their scholarship organizations to determine whether an expense is eligible before they make a purchase. The guides include links on the  Step Up For Students website for families using the Educational Options and Unique Abilities scholarships to offer feedback.  

“We use that feedback for continuous improvement,” Tuthill said.  

Each week, Bridgers and her team meet to examine parent feedback and purchases that fall into gray areas in state law. 

A parent recently expressed concern when Step Up asked for more information about a day program for her child, who has Down syndrome. Florida law does not expressly authorize spending scholarship funding on day programs not operated by schools. 

However, Bridgers’ team researched the provider and learned that the founder was certified in recreational therapy. That meant the program met the specifications for part-time tutoring under Florida law, which is eligible for scholarship funding. 

As a result of that feedback, Step Up For Students now approves reimbursements for full-time day programs that meet state specifications for students 16 and older with intellectual disabilities. 

“For this population, these programs are absolutely critical to those students’ development,” Bridgers said. 

Can I get it at a district school? 

Florida’s scholarship laws outline the types of purchases parents are allowed to make with their accounts. Some, like private school tuition, are straightforward. Other provisions of the law, such as one that allows parents to purchase instructional materials, leave more room for interpretation.  

To help determine whether a good or service would be covered by education savings accounts being administered by Step Up, Bridgers and her team asked a key question: Is it offered in a Florida public school? 

“We looked at our own statutes, but we also looked at other state statutes and policies and tried to come up with a public-school equivalency test,” Bridgers said. The team also examined statutes governing back-to-school tax holidays to help guide decisions on supplies. 

“The spirit of this is that these students on ESAs have the same opportunities as public-school students,” Bridgers said. 

That can include sports equipment, such as basketballs. But the guides set limits. The goal is to balance giving families access to a wide range of learning materials (including those a public school might purchase for gym class) while preventing uses of scholarship funds that stray beyond reasonable education-related purchases. Sports equipment can be replaced every two years, according to the guide. 

“You couldn’t get 600 basketballs like the public school district could,” Bridgers said. “We really tried to be comprehensive and thoughtful.”  

Field trips, including tickets to Florida theme parks, are also included as eligible instructional materials for families whose scholarships are managed by Step Up. However, the guide allows reimbursement of only the scholarship student’s ticket.  

“We had a lot of debate about theme parks, Tuthill recalled. “Is a trip to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World that educational? Well, it was when I went. We said, okay, if a family wants to go to Animal Kingdom, and it’s a field trip, and they built some learning activities around it, how would you manage it? It’s not unusual for public schools to take field trips to a theme park.” 

After all, Tuthill said, “learning can happen in all kinds of situations.” 

Bridgers and Tuthill hope the listings in the Step Up purchasing guides will encourage families to get creative when designing their child’s learning plans. 

That could include an evening at the Florida Orchestra concert or a community theater production. Research has found that taking students to live theater productions is an effective way to teach academic content, increase tolerance by providing exposure to a more diverse world, and improve students’ abilities to recognize what others are thinking or feeling.  

“Our hope is that guardians will sit down with their student learning plans and their students as they look through the guides and they get more ideas to use their funds to create a better experience for their families,” Bridgers said. 

For Hamilton and other parents whose customized programs have not relied heavily on co-ops or other offerings of outside groups, the guides have brought much needed clarity, especially to areas that once were considered gray. 

“This scholarship was started from a place of true understanding of the intersection of learners with unique abilities and the benefits of alternative schooling opportunities, including homeschooling for their ultimate success,” Hamilton said. “I expect that the end result of all the feedback is a guide that is more robust and clear and can be consistently interpreted by the SUFS processors that review all the reimbursement requests, and continues to allow the unique learners on the scholarship to continue to learn in the way that suits them best and be reimbursed for it.”

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.