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, textbooks, digital devices, courses at eligible post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, specialized after-school programs, transition services, fees for the annual evaluation of the educational progress of the child, fees for home education programs, and other defined educational services. Students may also purchase services, including part-time courses, from public schools.
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
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 $71.2 million to the ESA program for 2016–17 with an additional $5.1 million in rollover from unused funds from the previous school year. ESAs are prorated based on the quarter in which the student is awarded the ESA.
Students must have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed 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 or Williams syndrome. Students ages 3, 4 or 5 who are considered “high-risk” due to developmental delays are also eligible.
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. Funding increased from $53.4 million to a $76.3 million appropriation from the Florida legislature, including a $5.1 million rollover from unspent funds from the previous school year. 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.