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6 Scholarship Programs that can help you pay for Private School, Reading Help, and Special Needs Services in Florida

Private School Scholarships in Florida

Did you know that in Florida, you have the option to pick where your child goes to school? Thanks to several scholarship opportunities, you can get financial assistance and choose the education that is best suited for your child’s needs, including private school, or transportation to a different public school. You can also use three of these scholarships to pay private providers for reading support and special needs services outside of school hours.

Scholarships are available through Step Up for Students, the AAA Scholarship Foundation, and the McKay Scholarship Program. Here’s a summary of Florida’s private school scholarship options.

Step Up for Students

While “Step up for Students” is often used to reference these scholarships, Step Up for Students is one of two non-profit Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs) that issue scholarships and determine student eligibility for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), the Gardiner Scholarship, the Hope Scholarship, and the Reading Scholarship Programs. All scholarships are managed by the Florida Department of Education. Learn more about these scholarships and how to apply below.

Income Based: Florida Tax Credit Scholarship

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship gives families a choice of assistance toward private school tuition and fees, or helps with transportation costs for a student to attend a public school other than the one they are assigned to.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship private school option can be used towards the tuition, books, registration, transportation, uniforms, and testing, in this order, until all fees are covered OR the student’s maximum scholarship award amount is reached. Renewal students have first priority.

Income Based: Family Empowerment Scholarship 

The Family Empowerment Scholarship was established in 2019 and can be used towards private school tuition and fees. Prior to scholarship funds being awarded, the student must be accepted or attending a participating private school.

Your child may qualify:

  • If a member of the household receives SNAP (food stamps), TANF, or FDPIR.
  • If the household income qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • If the household income is at or below the income criteria. (Visit the website to see the Eligibility Chart – a family of four can have an income of more than $75,000 annually and still qualify).

When and Where to Apply
Families can apply NOW through an approved Scholarship Funding Organization (SFO):

  • Step Up for Students Website – In order to assure timely processing for a full scholarship, Step Up needs to receive the application and all required documents by June 1, 2021.
  • AAA Scholarships Website – Current Submission Deadline is 5/24/2021 (subject to change)

(There is one application for both the FTC and FES income-based scholarships. AAA has a helpful checklist if you are trying to determine your eligibility.)

Bullied Students: Hope Scholarship

The Hope Scholarship allows parents of children in public school to find a new learning environment for their child who is being bullied or a victim of violence. Funds can be used for private school tuition and fees, or assistance with transportation to another public school.

You may qualify:
If your child is a public school student in Florida who is a victim of bullying, harassment, or receiving threats.

When and Where to Apply
Apply on the Step Up for Students Website.
You may apply NOW for a Hope Scholarship for the 2020-21 school year. Applications for the 2021-22 school year are not yet available at the time of publication, check the Step Up website for updates.

Documentation of a qualifying incident through the school principal or his/her designee is required in order to submit the application. Applications are processed in the order they are received and scholarships are awarded to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis pending funding availability, so be sure to apply early. Renewal students are given priority.

Reading Help: Reading Help Scholarship

The Reading Scholarship Accounts program allows parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades three through five who are having trouble reading. The program offers parents access to education savings accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees related to part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

You may be eligible if your child is:

  • Currently enrolled in a Florida public school in third, fourth or fifth grade for the 2020-21 school year, and
  • Scored a performance level 1 or 2 on the English Language Arts (ELA) test in the 2018-19 school year, or
  • Enrolled in one of Florida’s 300 Lowest Performing Elementary Schools in 2018-19, or
  • Enrolled in one of Florida’s elementary schools that earned a D or F school grade in 2018-19, or
  • Identified in the 2019-20 school year as having a substantial deficiency in reading based on their most recent available screening and progress monitoring assessment.

Students who are classified as English Language Learners will receive priority.

When and Where to Apply
Apply on the Step Up for Students website.
You may apply NOW for a Reading Scholarship for the 2020-21 school year. Applications for the 2021-22 school year are not yet available at the time of publication, check the Step Up website for updates.

Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis in the order all documents are received, so be sure to apply early.

Special Needs + Medical Needs: Gardiner Scholarship

The Gardiner Scholarship program helps students with certain special learning needs and medical needs, ages 3 – 22. The Gardiner Scholarship is different than other state scholarships in that it allows parents to personalize the education of their children with unique abilities by directing money toward a combination of programs and providers. These include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.

You may qualify:
If your child is a Florida student, 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, with one of the following disabilities: Autism spectrum disorder, Muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina bifida, Williams syndrome, Intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound as defined by the rules of the State Board of Education and evidenced by reports from local school districts, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.

When and Where to Apply
Families can apply NOW through an approved Scholarship Funding Organization (SFO):

IEP + 504 Students: McKay Scholarship

The McKay Scholarship provides scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend a public or private school of their choice. Students with disabilities include K-12 students who are documented as having an intellectual disability; a speech or language impairment; a hearing impairment, including deafness; a visual impairment, including blindness; a dual sensory impairment; an orthopedic impairment, an other health impairment, an emotional or behavioral disability; a specific learning disability, including, but not limited to, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or developmental aphasia; a traumatic brain injury; a developmental delay; or autism spectrum disorder.

You may be eligible if you are a parent of a public school student with a disability who has an IEP or a 504 accommodation plan if the student meets the following requirements:

  • The student has spent the prior school year in attendance at a Florida public school, or
  • The student was enrolled and reported for funding by the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind during the preceding October and February student membership surveys in kindergarten through grade 12, or
  • The student received services under the Specialized Instructional Services (SIS) program during the previous school year and has a current IEP, or
  • The student is a foster child or is a dependent child of a member of the United States Armed Forces who transfers to Florida from out of state due to a parent’s permanent change of station orders, and
  • The parent has notified the school district in a manner that creates a written or electronic record of the notification at least 60 days prior to the date of the first scholarship payment, and
  • The parent has obtained acceptance for admission of the student to a private school that is eligible for the program.
  • * Please note that students with a “gifted only” designation and an Eligibility Plan (EP) do not meet the eligibility criteria for the McKay Scholarship Program.

When and Where to Apply
Parents can file an intent to participate in the McKay Scholarship Program at any point during the year, but there are specific deadlines to receive 100% funding for the upcoming year. The filing deadline to be eligible for next school year’s first payment (2021-22) is July 3rd, 2021. Learn more and apply on the Florida DOE Website.

How to Use Scholarship Funds

Local private schools can choose whether to participate in each of these state scholarship programs. You can utilize the School Search map on the Step up for Students website as a starting point, but you should contact a school directly to verify which scholarships they accept. Remember that scholarship funding and private school enrollment are separate applications – a scholarship does not guarantee admission in a specific private school, and enrolling in a private school does not guarantee a scholarship.

Private schools also often have merit-based scholarships and need-based financial assistance available directly through the school. You can learn more about local schools in our Private School Guide for Lakeland + Polk County.

Our local partner, Huntington Learning Center, accepts both the Gardiner Scholarship and the Reading Scholarship to help with tutoring programs, reading remediation, and more.

Additional public school choice programs are available through Polk County Public Schools.

Think you can’t afford private school? We hope we’ve made you think again! Don’t let tuition costs scare you away from researching your options. Private schools can be made affordable with various options for financial aid. These six scholarship programs in Florida can help make a private school education possible for your family.

Education Guide

Check out our Education Guide for Lakeland + Polk County for other education topics including public schools, private schools, homeschooling, tutoring + test prep, school calendars, colleges, and more.