Bill expanding Florida special needs choice accounts passes unanimously

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bileca
Bileca

The Florida House this morning unanimously approved legislation that would expand access to the state’s newest parental choice program for children with special needs.

The legislation would allow children with muscular dystrophy and a broader range of students with autism to use Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, a cutting-edge program created last year.

The legislation would also open the program to three- and four-year-olds, expand the services that can be paid for with the accounts, increase oversight for the nonprofit organizations that administer the program, and allow them to collect administrative fees.

The largest such organization is Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Last year, Florida became the second state in the country to create an education savings account program, which allows parents of special needs children to use state education funding to pay for a range of education-related services, from private school tuition to therapies and textbooks.

Rep. Mike Bileca, R-Miami, backed the creation of the program last year, and helped shepherd this year’s bill, which no legislator has voted against. He said he’s been hearing from parents who have begun using the accounts.

“It’s been nothing short of life-changing,” he said before the bill passed 114-0. “Of all things that I’ve done personally on education in this chamber, there’s been nothing more powerful for me than being able to talk with these parents and hear their stories.”

The bill now returns to the Senate, where the chamber voted earlier this month to co-sponsor the bill unanimously. The main unanswered question is now how much money lawmakers will set aside for the accounts, with state budget talks stalled due to a dispute over health care funding.

This morning’s vote was welcomed in a statement by Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future. She is also a former member of Step Up’s board.

“The Florida House’s unanimous decision to expand access to Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts to more students with unique abilities speaks volumes for their trust in parents to make decisions customized for their children,” she said. “As our state increasingly embraces more personalized approaches to education, we’ll unlock the potential for more and more great outcomes for students.”

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