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Florida school voucher applications are rolling in already at record numbers

yellow school bus
Citrus County Schools
Applications for vouchers that pay for private school tuition and home schooling needs are increasing across Florida.

More than 386,000 applications for the upcoming school year have been submitted, surpassing the number of vouchers awarded last school year.

More than 386,000 applications for school vouchers have been submitted statewide, according to Step Up for Students, Florida's main scholarship distributor.

The number, which is expected to increase as students apply throughout the summer, has already surpassed the number of vouchers awarded last school year.

These vouchers, or scholarships, are used to pay for private school tuition and other education-related needs meant to broaden school choice for families.

Nearly 375,000 students received the scholarships last year, Vouchers are funded by state dollars and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is funded through corporate donations.

Prior to last school year, the voucher program was restricted by income level. Lawmakers lifted the income cap on the more general Educational Options scholarships, creating a universal voucher program, leading to a surge in applicants.

Caps placed on vouchers for students with disabilities and home schooled students are also set to expand.

Lawmakers lifted the 41,000 cap on the Unique Abilities scholarships during a special session last fall to accommodate the high demand. More than 91,000 such scholarships were ultimately awarded.

In the upcoming school year, the program will increase the cap by 3% of the state's total exceptional student education (ESE) enrollment, not including gifted students.

The Personalized Education Program provided 20,000 vouchers for home school students in its first year. The program is funded by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Hillsborough County, which is a hotbed for home schooled students, was home to 1,249 voucher recipients in the 2023-24 school year.

State law allows the PEP to increase vouchers by 40,000 annually until 2027, which means maximum capacity for the upcoming school year is now 60,000.

According to Step Up for Students, 40,848 students have applied so far.

Scott Kent, the distributor's spokesperson, said it's important to note that not every student who is awarded a scholarship uses it.

Vouchers range from $7,000 to $9,000, depending on the county students live in. For Unique Abilities, voucher money could exceed $10,000.

Opponents of the program have decried the vouchers for siphoning money away from the public school system. Meanwhile, the state defends the program as expanding educational options for families.

The Florida Policy Institute, which estimated the vouchers to cost about $4 billion, is calling for more transparency in the program's funding. FPI is also calling on the state and scholarship funding organizations to release more demographic data on voucher award recipients.

Last September, Step Up For Students reported that a majority of vouchers went to students who were already enrolled in private schools.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.