FL Senate proposes new path on school choice accounts for disabled students

Travis Pillow

The Florida Senate has proposed taking a new path on legislation that would create individual accounts for special-needs students.

Under a rewrite approved this morning by the Education Appropriations panel, the legislation would create “enhancements” of the existing services for children with disabilities.

Earlier versions of the bill would have created education savings accounts based on the state’s core per-pupil education funding. The new proposal would create a Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, overseen by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and paid for by $18.4 million in separate funding.

The program would be open to students with conditions like autism and cerebral palsy who participate in home-education programs, or attend public or private schools.

Like the original proposal, it would give their parents a way to pay for additional instructional materials, private school tuition, or certain kinds of therapy. They could also use the money to save for college or pay for services provided by school districts.

“To me it’s very simple. It’s about more money to kids who need it the most,” said Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, who noted some of the bill’s initial opponents were concerned about funding the accounts in the state’s education budget. “This is additional money for additional services for all kids.”

“What it begins to recognize is that our public schools cannot be health-care providers for everyone,” he added.

Advocates for students with disabilities, including Robyn Rennick of the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, spoke in favor of the bill. Representatives for the statewide teachers union, which opposed the original legislation, withdrew their opposition after the changes were approved.

The bill would allow APD to set up a pilot program during the program’s first year. The agency would be tasked with developing “individual learning services plans” based on the students’ needs.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, cast the lone vote against the bill. He questioned whether the new measure should be heard by a legislative committee that oversees health care issues.

The changes also place the House and Senate’s respective school choice plans further apart. The House legislation would create education savings accounts managed by scholarship funding organizations, possibly including Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog. The House’s school choice proposals have also been merged, combining individual student accounts with legislation to strengthen and expand tax credit scholarships.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said creating the new individual accounts would support the efforts of Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to increase education opportunities for special-needs students.

“There’s going to be controversy about details,” Thrasher said. “We all know that. I’m confident you can work them out.”

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