Fla. Senate panel backs expanded Gardiner scholarship eligibility

Leon County parent Jeanne Boggs testifies before the Florida Senate Education Committee.

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation today that would allow more children to qualify for Gardiner scholarships, which provide education savings accounts for children with special needs.

SB 902, by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would expand eligibility for the program to include children who are deaf or visually impaired, as well as those with rare diseases or traumatic brain injuries. It defines rare diseases as those affecting populations of fewer than 200,000 in the United States.

In what became a theme for the meeting, Simmons said the program does not hurt public schools but assists them.

“The Gardiner scholarships have shown that there is no one size that fits all to helping these children and these families with these kinds of challenges,” he said. “These are extreme challenges, challenges which those who have faced them, most have stood up and met those challenges. This is one tool that we as a government can, in fact, help these children and these families.”

The scholarships are worth approximately 90 percent of the amount the state would spend to educate a child in public schools. Parents are able to use the money to pay for private-school tuition, homeschool curriculum, therapies, public-school courses, college savings and other approved education-related expenses.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program. It serves more than 7,700 students this school year, which makes it the largest education savings account program in the nation.

Simmons originally proposed tripling funding for Gardiner Scholarships. In an amendment filed today, he struck the funding portion from the bill. He said the funding increase was designed to provide scholarships to children who would qualify under the expanded eligibility guidelines, and that he did not think that would cost the full $200 million contained in the first draft of the bill.

The Senate’s budget proposal would increase Gardiner scholarship funding by $34 million, or roughly 46 percent. The House’s rival plan would keep the program’s funding level, at just above $73 million. The two sides must come to a compromise in a budget conference for the legislative session to end May 5 as scheduled.

Jeanne Boggs, a parent of a child with autism in Leon County, said the Gardiner scholarship program helped her son.

“The Gardiner scholarship has meant the world to our family,” she said. “What works for one child’s disability may not work for another child, even if they share the same diagnosis.”

“This scholarship doesn’t just support the student,” she added. “It supports families, the teachers and the schools by allowing an inclusive, appropriate education for each unique child.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, the lone dissenter of the bill, said he has a child with multiple special needs diagnoses who utilized equine and other therapies. But he added that while he sympathized with the needs of special needs children, he could not support the bill because he believes public schools are not adequately funded.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said while he understands Farmer’s position, he supported the bill.

“I see all of the drain of the monies from the public school system going toward vouchers and the scholarships,” he said. “I just happen to look at it differently when it comes to McKay scholarships and the Gardiner scholarship, simply because of the special needs.”

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, filed a similar bill in the House. It is combined with a measure increasing per-student funding for tax credit scholarships and is now ready to be taken up on the House floor Tuesday. The Senate bill still needs to be heard by a few more committees.

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    […] PANEL BACKS EXPANDED GARDINER SCHOLARSHIP ELIGIBILITY via Livi Stanford of redefinED.org – SB 902, by Sen. David Simmons … would expand eligibility for the program to include children […]

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