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Florida – Gardiner Scholarship Program

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Florida – Gardiner Scholarship Program

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.

Program Fast Facts

  • America’s second education savings accounts program

  • 4,080 participating students (2015–16)

  • 12 percent of students eligible statewide

  • 174 participating schools (2014–15)

  • Average account value: $10,716 (2015–16 projected)

  • Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 121 percent

Program Details

Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program Participation

Students Participating
School Year Ending

Click the + symbols to learn more about this program’s details.

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.

Student Funding

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.

Student Eligibility

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.

Friedman Feedback

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.

Rules and Regulations

  • Income Limit: None
  • Prior Year Public School Requirement: None
  • Geographic Limit: Statewide
  • Enrollment Cap: None
  • Account Cap: 90 percent of state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula and categorical grants for students with special needs
  •  Testing Mandates: State or National
  • Limited to students with special needs, those diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, an intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina-bifida, muscular dystrophy, or Williams syndrome and kindergartners who are considered “high-risk”

Parent Requirements

  • Must sign an agreement with the SFO annually to:
    • Affirm that the student is enrolled in a program that meets regular school attendance requirements
    • Affirm that program funds are used only for authorized purposes serving the student’s educational needs
    • Ensure student takes all appropriate standardized assessments, either the state assessment test or a nationally recognized norm-referenced test
    • Affirm that the parent will not transfer any college savings funds to another beneficiary
    • Affirm that the parent will not take possession of any funding provided by the state

Governing Statutes

Legal History

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.

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