Expansion of Florida special needs accounts caught in legislative standoff

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An expansion of Florida’s newest parental choice program for special needs students may be among the casualties of the standoff between the state House and Senate, despite versions of the bill passing both chambers unanimously.

The Senate today rejected the House’s version of legislation expanding access to Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for special needs students, sending a revised version back to the other chamber, which has already adjourned for the current session. The state’s usual 60-day session is expected to end on Friday.

Sponsor Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville objected to changes the House made to the scholarship account bill the Senate passed earlier this month. Among other things, the revisions would have removed auditing provisions the Senate supported and deleted language intended to help families use the accounts to fund their Florida Prepaid College plans.

Gaetz said the House amendment could have resulted in administrative costs for the program being deducted from scholarships, rather than funded separately, as they were in the version the Senate approved. He said those changes did not meet the “moral standard” set by the upper chamber.
The fees would allow organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post, to cover their costs administering the program.

“We believe that a student should receive 100 percent of his or her PLSA scholarship to access necessary educational supports that are tailored specifically to his or her needs and academic success,” Senate President Gardiner, a supporter of the program, said in a statement released afterward. “Returning to the Senate’s version of the language ensures that the administrative fee is not taken from a child’s funds.”

During the program’s first year, Step Up raised $900,000 privately to cover the cost of the program.

In a statement, Doug Tuthill, the scholarship organization’s president, said the organization did not want its fees to be deducted from any child’s scholarship.

“We share President Gardiner’s goal of serving every child who needs it – and for those services to be delivered in whatever manner the Legislature deems to be the most effective and efficient,” he said.

Immediately after making changes to the bill, the Senate began pushing for the House to return to Tallahassee, arguing its decision to adjourn its session on Tuesday, rather than on Friday’s scheduled end, violated the state constitution.

Regardless of how the dispute is resolved, the two chambers are expected to return to Tallahassee, before June 30, to craft a state budget before the current one expires.

The legislative standoff has likely killed dozens of bills, including other portions of Gardiner’s agenda to create new opportunities for children with special needs, as well as most of the education proposals being considered this session.

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