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 allows students with special needs an opportunity to receive an education savings account (ESA) funded by the state and administered by an approved scholarshipfunding 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
The General Appropriations Act provides funding for Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program and 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 $151.3 million to the ESA program for 2019–20. ESAs are prorated based on the academic quarter in which the student is deemed eligible for the ESA by a scholarship-funding organization.
To be awarded an ESA, students must be at least 3 years old and no older than 22 or in 12th grade, whichever comes first. Students must have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed by a physician or psychologist with one of the following: autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, an intellectual disability, muscular dystrophy, Phelan-McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, anaphylaxis, dual sensory impairment or rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000 Americans. Students are also eligible if A) they are identified as deaf or visually impaired, B) they have had a traumatic brain injury defined by the state board of education, C) they are hospitalized or homebound with a medically diagnosed physical or psychiatric condition for more than six months or D) they are students aged 3, 4 or 5 who are considered “high-risk” due to developmental delay.
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 Florida legislature increased funding from $128.3 million to $151.3 million, providing even more students with special needs access to the educational services they need. Lawmakers have also expanded the program to include additional disabilities, as well as 4- and 5-year-old students deemed at risk for developmental delays. 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 greater autonomy and flexibility than state bureaucracies and are primarily dedicated to ensuring that children have access to the educational options they need.
In July 2014, Tom Faase, a high school social studies teacher in the Lee County Public School System, filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s 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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