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How to Fix Florida’s Scholarship Program for Homeschoolers
Families shouldn’t be using the money for Disney World tickets—but don’t be too quick to call expenses frivolous and wasteful.
THIS SEPTEMBER, ALL THREE OF MY KIDS are in school—at last. Following two years of pandemic homeschooling, my oldest, 9, began at a private school last year and is now in third grade. Her sister, 6, has joined her there for first grade, after kindergarten at Daddy’s Homeschool. And my little guy, 4, is enrolled in a half-day pre-K at a different private school. So far, they’re thriving—and I have some quiet mornings, at long last.
My wife and I have been able to tailor their education to their needs, including homeschool and private school, thanks to Florida’s growing school-choice system. They receive a scholarship that covers about two-thirds of the girls’ tuition and all of my son’s tuition. With the state’s help, we made our decision primarily based on the kids’ educational needs; worries about being crippled financially by tuition costs or spending a fortune to buy a house in a good school district were far from our minds. The scholarships have been a godsend.
Recently, however, a new Florida scholarship that offers educational savings accounts to homeschooling families, the Personalized Education Program (PEP), has come under attack as critics call it a waste of taxpayer dollars and a threat to public education because, supposedly, it encourages homeschoolers to splurge on luxury goods and experiences of dubious educational value.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, PEP allows parents to use scholarship money for items such as LEGO sets, iPads, and, most egregious, admission to a Florida theme park as a field trip. The irony of a Ron DeSantis-backed initiative lining the pockets of his archenemy, the Walt Disney Company, is delicious and the story circulated more widely. Judd Legum, in his Popular Information newsletter, posted screenshots of a Facebook group where PEP parents traded advice on how to game the system to have the scholarship pay for Disney World and Universal Orlando tickets and PlayStation 5 consoles, among other goodies. A New York magazine writer called the program “untested and frankly anti-democratic.”
Missing from these accounts is the perspective of actual parents familiar with how the scholarships work. The criticisms are mostly misplaced scaremongering, though program administration should be tightened to prevent abuse and ensure public support for school choice overall.
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I have some familiarity with the program: My children do not receive a PEP scholarship, since it is new this year and we no longer homeschool, but their scholarship is also an educational savings account, and the rules for spending are the same as for PEP. I’m in charge of all things scholarship-related in my house, and far from the free-for-all implied by critics, the process is intricate and time-consuming. If you’ve ever used a medical savings account, you’d recognize the steps as pretty similar. If I expect to have an expense, I can check ahead of time to see if it falls into categories of approved expenses. I then save all relevant receipts and submit them to Step Up for Students, one of two private agencies that administer school choice programs on behalf of the state. I am asked to justify each expense with an explanation of why it serves the specific educational needs of the child. About half the time, an email comes in that makes me groan: I’m asked to submit additional documentation.
We’ve used most of the scholarship money on tuition, school fees, and uniforms, as well as speech and occupational therapy for my son, who is eligible for the scholarship due to a speech delay. But if I see a toy or game my son responds well to in a therapy session—and it’s not one of the millions already filling the house—I’ll buy it for him and ask for reimbursement, figuring its best to have the exact same thing for us to use at home and have continuity with his therapy. Any balance we save to pay future tuition. The money rolls over year to year, so there’s an incentive to save.
My personal rule is that if something is primarily for fun, like a tablet or a visit to Disney World, then it shouldn’t be paid by the scholarship. But I recognize the boundary between “fun” and “educational” is blurry, especially for kids, who learn by playing, and other parents may draw their boundary differently.
Still, I was appalled by the scheming in the PEP Facebook group highlighted by Legum, such as where one parent advises the others not to say a theme park annual pass is really an annual pass in order to have the expense approved while another complained “our ps3 isn’t doing great, so I need to get something new.” I’d hate being lumped in with these people.
For this reason, I’d like to see theme park tickets excluded from reimbursement, which was already the case before this year. It’s too much of a temptation, apparently, and the bad actions of a few easily tarnish the program. Likewise, I’d like to see tighter oversight of expenses for items that can have a dual use by adults, such as computers, iPads, and gaming consoles.
The problem is there’s always a tradeoff. For example, it might be a good idea to require a letter of support from a doctor, teacher, or therapist attesting to an item’s educational necessity so that unscrupulous parents would have a harder time cheating the system. Unfortunately, that places an extra burden on the professionals who care for children.
The challenges are not insurmountable, however, and we should debate how parents’ desire for flexibility to make their own choices can be balanced with the public’s need for accountability on how tax dollars are spent. Unfortunately, what should be a technical public policy question has gotten roped into a culture war fight about whether parents can be trusted to educate their children without ripping off taxpayers to buy 55-inch TVs that, as the New York magazine writer warned, might be used “to screen creationist content that has no basis in science.” Anything’s possible, I guess.
As the first week of school ended, my 6-year-old’s teacher sent the kind of note that thrills the heart of any parent of a child just starting school: Though shy and reserved at first, our girl was “blossoming” as she made friends and joined in activities. We’re confident we made the right choice for her. Every parent should have the same flexibility, without cost being the decisive factor, as it would have been for us without a scholarship from the state of Florida.