Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program allows students with special needs an opportunity to receive an education savings account (ESA) funded by the state and administered by an approved Scholarship Funding Organization. Parents can use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, home education, curriculum, therapy, postsecondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services.
Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program provides parents funds to pay for a variety of educational services for their children, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services.
Funding for Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program is provided in the General Appropriations Act, which specifies the annual amount. The amount varies according to grade, county of residence, and public school spending for students with disabilities. The Florida legislature appropriated $53.4 million to the ESA program for 2015–16 and $71.2 million for 2016–17.
Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, an intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, or Williams syndrome or be kindergartners who are considered “high-risk.” In 2015–16, eligibility expanded to include 3- and 4-year-olds, students who have muscular dystrophy, and students who are anywhere on the autism spectrum.
Although Florida’s McKay voucher is the nation’s largest such program for students with special needs, the state still took an important step to pass ESAs designed to give parents access to educational therapy, tutoring, and online learning programs, which are inaccessible through a traditional voucher program. The ESA program is projected to serve more than 5,000 students in the 2015–16 school year based on an increase from a $18.4 million to a $53.4 million appropriation from the Florida legislature. Notably, Florida’s ESA program is administered by approved nonprofit organizations that reimburse parents for approved expenses. One nonprofit has developed a payment process for parents who cannot make purchases out of pocket. It is encouraging to see Florida take an innovative approach to delivering services and educational choice programs to more families. Florida’s nonprofit approach to ESA administration provides a good policy example to states considering ESA programs because such organizations have specific interest in the program’s success.
In July 2014, Tom Faase, a high school social studies teacher in the Lee County Public School System, filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new Gardiner Scholarship Program. Plaintiff claimed the program was enacted in violation of the state constitution’s “single subject matter” rule. On December 30, 2014, the Circuit Court, Second Judicial Circuit, Leon County, Florida, dismissed the case, with prejudice. There was no appeal. The court closed the file on this case in February 2015. Tom Faasse, et al. v. Rick Scott, as Governor and Head of the Department of Revenue, et al.