Special Needs Planning and the McKay Scholarship
Any parent, family member or friend of a family with a special needs child is aware of the struggle to find that child adequate educational resources. On top of finding a facility that can provide quality education and services for the child’s unique needs, financing that cost can be a daunting challenge. Did you know that there is a program available here in Florida that provides significant financial resources for just that purpose? Ironically, it is probably one of the least understood, least publicized, and greatest planning tools for families with a special needs child. It is The McKay Scholarship Program.  It’s fairly simple for a child with special needs to qualify – the challenge is finding out what McKay is, how it works and what it can do for a child.
Does the name McKay sound familiar? You may have received a notice from your child’s school. Public schools are required to inform parents/guardians annually that their child ‘may be eligible’ for McKay. As a parent of a special needs child, I received this notice. I still have it. Even as I read it now, knowing what the McKay Scholarship is, I struggle to grasp what the notice says. For three years in a row, I filed it away with other notices we got that didn’t apply to us, like‘your child may be eligible’ for free or reduced lunch. It was only after speaking with other parents that I realized ‘your child may be eligible’ for McKay does not have the same meaning – it is not based on income, it is based on the child’s educational needs.
Here are the two key features of McKay that everyone should know:
- Eligibility in not need-based.
- Students in grades K-12 with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 Accommodation Plan can elect to direct their public school funding to a private school. 
- Funding is available to each student through the earlier of graduation or age 22.
Those three facts add up to real money to help educate a child. Money that would otherwise be used within the public school system to provide education and services to the student can be redirected to a school selected by the parent/guardian. WOW!!! And that’s the struggle for public schools. If all parents/guardians of eligible children were given enough information to understand the value of McKay, and if they exercised their child’s right to go to private school, how many students would be removed from the public schools’ funding count? Not a terribly appealing program for public schools to promote.
So, how does McKay work?
- How much funding might a student qualify for through the McKay Scholarship Program?
According to the Florida Department of Education’s School Choice website, McKay scholarships for IEP students ranged from $4,395 to $19,105, with an average amount of $7,019. The average amount for students with a 504 Plan was $3,977. 
- How does the program determine the level of funding for each eligible student?
Children with an IEP have a ‘matrix score’ which determines the amount of public funding available each year for the student’s education and services. The more support and services a child gets in the public school setting, the higher the matrix score. Obviously, the higher the matrix score, the higher the funding amount through McKay. The public school where a student is currently assigned can provide the matrix score to a parent/guardian. It’s important to know that once a student goes on McKay, their matrix score does not change! If you feel that your student should be getting more services through the public school, push for them to be added to the IEP (i.e. maximize the matrix score) BEFORE applying for McKay.
What is the McKay Scholarship application process?
A parent/guardian submits an ‘intent to participate’ for the student on the Florida Choice website. Generally, the deadline to submit an intent for the next school year is at the beginning of July. The intent submission kicks off the public school system’s process of determining the student’s eligibility, matrix score and funding amount. Once these factors are verified and calculated, the parent/guardian is notified that the child is eligible, and may proceed with selecting the school where the student will attend.
- What schools are eligible to accept the McKay Scholarship?
Once a student goes on McKay, those funding dollars become available to pay for the student’s education at a participating private school. The School Choice website lists all eligible schools by county, with an overview of each including disabilities serviced, religious affiliation, accreditation and contact information. This is a good place to start, but it is well worth visiting schools of interest before selecting one. In Duval County, there are currently 108 participating schools, with 9 in St. Johns, 17 in Clay and 6 in Nassau. Many of the schools have a religious affiliation, which may be appealing to some parents who want to add that component to the student’s education. A number of the schools cater exclusively to special needs students.
Once a school is selected, the parent/guardian will complete the paperwork with the school to enroll the student. The school will notify the School Choice office that the student has enrolled. McKay funding will then be directed to that school on behalf of the student. It is important to note that any fees or tuition in excess of the McKay funding amount become the responsibility of parent/guardian. For example, if a student is eligible for $5,000 in McKay funding, but the selected school’s tuition and fees is $10,000, the difference will be payable by the parent/guardian.
- How does a McKay student change schools?
A McKay student may change schools at any time, but the key is to make sure the funding follows the student. Timing is very specific so please contact the Florida Choice office for further guidance.
- Can a McKay student return to public school?
A McKay student may return to public school at any time, with notice to the Florida Choice office and the local school district. Please note that once a student returns to public school, they lose their McKay eligibility for the remainder of the school year and will need to recertify. The student’s matrix score will also be reestablished with another filing of intent with McKay.
This article is designed to provide an overview of the McKay program. For specific rules, deadlines and eligibility, please contact the Florida Department of Education School Choice office or visitwww.floridaschoolchoice.org.
Kristine d’Esterhazy is a Certified Financial Planner® practitioner with PARAGON Wealth Strategies, LLC in Jacksonville, Florida.