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Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) in Florida – Explained

Written By Geoff Nixon . December 21, 2022

How FES-UA and FES-EO Work For Families

Executive Summary – for Gemm families

To qualify for home learning help (under the Unique Abilities scholarship, FES-UA):

  • Income limits, but 50% of FL families qualified in 2021
  • Documented diagnosis required – listed in handbook below

Families apply for a block grant (here) and then provider bills the FES program directly. Gemm Learning is fully covered, families do not need to pay anything, unless they are receiving help from more than one provider for a cost that exceeds the block grant amount. The average grant, which would typically cover multiple services is around $10,500.  Families can apply based on their child’s need, and figure out the services later.

History of Florida’s Education Scholarships

Florida’s history of providing scholarships for public school students living in low- and middle-income households started in 2001 with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). The program provides tax credits for businesses willingly contributing to non-profit organizations that offer scholarships to students without substantial financial resources. These organizations are known as Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFO). The goal of this initial program was to increase funding to qualifying organizations, allowing more students to receive financial assistance for education.

Unfortunately, there were more students qualified to receive scholarships through the program than scholarships available causing long waitlists.   In 2011, Governor DeSantis created a government-funded program called the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) that is in effect today.   Note, the McKay and Gardner Scholarships have been folded into this new FES program.

This article explains what, who and how to apply for families living in Florida.

Note: Gemm Learning is a listed provider under the FES – Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), which includes learning difficulties addressed by our program.

What is the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship?

The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program is an educational opportunity voucher program that allows students from low- and middle-income families to find and receive extra support at home for learning or to attend private schools at little to no cost.  Importantly, the program allows students and their families to decide which services to include in their child’s education plan, giving them more choice.

Students must meet certain criteria to qualify for a scholarship through the program, but more than 74,000 students participated in the program in the fall of 2021. Statewide, more than 50% of families qualified according to the current income guidelines, and close to 2,000 learning providers and schools were eligible to receive the funding for the 2021-2022 school year. Gemm Learning is an approved provider.

Who Funds Florida’s FES Program?

Funding is one of the biggest differences between Florida’s FTC program and the FES program. FTC scholarships are funded by private organizations in exchange for tax breaks. FES scholarships are funded by Florida’s general revenue fund, so no voluntary donations are needed from corporations.

SFOs are still utilized for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for educational programs, which we’ll talk more about in a moment. Students apply for scholarships through those organizations. The organizations handle all paperwork, request funding from the government, and send funds directly to each private school once funding is received.

There are caps that limit the number of scholarships awarded through the FES program each school year. The law allows for growth at the rate of 1% of the total number of students enrolled in Florida’s public school system each year.

Some students are not counted toward the cap each school year. That includes students whose parents are active members of the U.S. Armed Forces, adopted children, and those in foster care. Students who attended public school the year prior to applying for a scholarship and whose families earn no more than 185% of the federal poverty level are not counted towards the cap either.

Do Students Have to Reapply for FES Each Year?

Students aren’t required to reapply for FES once approved for a scholarship. Eligibility is verified by the SFOs and renewals are sent directly to the student’s school for each new school year. The school and parents are required to sign the renewal by a designated date in order to officially accept each new scholarship.

Two Programs – Private Schools and Extra Services

The are now two scholarship divisions that provide more options for families – FES-EO and FES-UA.

FES for Educational Options (FES-EO)

This is state-funded vouchers for private school.  This includes the option of applying for a lesser amount that covers the cost of transportation to the public school of their choice. Those smaller scholarships allow students to select higher-quality public schools that are further away from their homes than their assigned schools.

Students may qualify for FES-EO if one or more of the following apply:

  • Parent is a member of the U.S. Armed Forces
  • Directly certified to receive food assistance or TANF
  • Qualified for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • Family income is at or below 375% of the federal poverty level

Siblings of participating students are automatically qualified for scholarships. Prioritized consideration is given to students from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty level.

FES for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA)

FES-UA allows students with disabilities to receive funding for enhanced educational opportunities. Children as young as three years  of age may qualify for scholarships. There is greater flexibility built into this division of the program because students of unique abilities have individualized educational needs.

There are two primary options for parents or legal guardians:

  • Receive funding for transportation when enrolling a child with a disability in the public school best fitting their needs
  • Receive funding into a personal Education Savings Account (ESA) and pay for qualifying education expenses directly
  • Parents may choose to pay for private school tuition with the ESA, but there are other options available:
    • Online learning programs
    • Private tutors
    • Community college or higher education expenses
    • Customized learning materials or programs

Who Qualifies for the FES-UA Program?

The FES-UA program is open to students with a qualifying disability who are between the ages of 3 and 22. An official diagnosis from a doctor or psychologist is required, and the range of qualifying unique abilities is quite varied. It includes those that are high-risk, homebound, and hospitalized as well as those with rare diseases.

When in doubt, parents and legal guardians can always apply for the program to see if their child qualifies for a scholarship. While the definition of a child with unique abilities is quite complex,. many parents are finding that their child qualifies when that was not their initial expectation. Scroll down on this page to see diagnoses covered by the FES – Unique Abilities scholarship.  The diagnoses are also listed in the handbook below. Note, that this list includes autism, language impairment and specific learning disability, which covers a range of difficulties including dyslexia.

Read more about that in the FES-UA Parent-Handbook.

How Much Funding Is Available for a Family?

Most FES-UA awards cover most, if not all costs.  Families receive a block amount they can use as they please.  For Gemm Learning clients, this amount is enough to pay for 100% of services.

Amounts awarded for the FES-UA program will vary, depending on which matrix the student falls into. Step Up for Students— the scholarship-funding organization for the FES-UA program—has a detailed chart with the most current funding amounts listed.

The FES-EO program pays the lesser amount of the following two figures when students use their voucher to attend a private school:

  • The full amount stated on the scholarship award
  • The total cost of tuition, fees, and books at the selected private school

For students who are approved for FES-EO and choose to attend the public school of their choice, the amount awarded is currently $750. That money is awarded directly to the student’s parent or legal guardian to help with the cost of transportation to and from the chosen school.

How to Apply

You can apply for Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program directly through one of the approved Scholarship Funding Organizations. There are currently two funding organizations approved to qualify students plus distribute and oversee the funding:

  • AAA Scholarship Foundation – here
  • Step Up for Students – here

Step Up for Students handles applications for the FES-UA program. If your child doesn’t have a unique ability and you want to apply for a scholarship through the FES-EO program, you can apply through the AAA Scholarship Foundation directly.

If you live in Florida, and want a FES-UA scholarship to pay for Gemm Learning, apply at Step Up for Students here.

Other States

Information on Indiana here, Arizona here and all state scholarship programs here.


FES-UA-Parent-Handbook (use this one for help getting funding for Gemm Learning)

FES-EO-Parent-Handbook  (use this one for funding for a private school)

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