As Florida Gov. Rick Scott weighs the fate of a massive piece of education legislation in the face of a heated public campaign, parents of special needs children have emerged as a key group urging support. They’re advocating for Gardiner Scholarships to help them better afford access to private schools, curriculum, therapy, and other support for their children.
The wide-ranging HB 7069 includes $30 million in additional funding for the scholarships. The state budget, which lawmakers approved separately, would provide $73.3 million next year – the same funding as the current year.
Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program. Step Up administrators report that, as of Monday, 11,029 students have applied for a Gardiner Scholarship for next year. Hundreds, and potentially thousands, of families could be turned away from the program if the additional funding isn’t approved. And many of them have contacted the governor to explain the stakes.
Anna Baumgaertner wrote a letter describing how her seven-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor disrupted her daughter’s working memory. She was labeled as having a mental disability and struggled in school.
With the help of a scholarship, Baumgaertner wrote, “we have been able to provide Zoe with the tutoring, school and therapy she needs to progress at grade level with her peers.”
Her letter continued: “In order for Zoe to not fall behind again, she needs these resources to continue so that she may again excel in the coming years.” She added a nod to the fact that Scott has supported the scholarships consistently since he signed the law creating the program in 2014: “Thank you for all of the support you have given in the past and please keep it going!”
The bill would bring major changes to public education in Florida, creating a $140 million fund to attract proven urban charter schools to the state and fund wraparound services at persistently struggling public schools. It would also deregulate high-performing schools, shift control over federal Title I funding away from districts to individual schools, and fund hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher bonuses.
Teachers unions and school districts have helped inundate Scott’s office with calls for a veto. Charter schools with millions of dollars in funding at stake have also rallied supporters. The Miami Herald reported this week that the volume of messages to the governor from supporters and opponents is close to even.
Beth Ratliff of Estero said she had called the governor urging support for Gardiner scholarship funding, and asked friends and family to do the same. She said some teachers she knows have raised concerns about other parts of the sweeping legislative package.
Ratliff applied this spring to get a scholarship for her son, who is going into middle school and was diagnosed with autism. She’s already paid some private school fees for next year, she said, and if her scholarship isn’t approved for lack of funding, she’s not sure what she will do.
“Unless you have the Gardiner scholarship, I don’t know if people truly understand the benefits of it,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge difference for our family.”
Her son has a tremendous “will to learn,” she said, but he has a hard time focusing in large classes. By allowing him to move to an environment that better meets his needs, she said, the program has the potential to create a “win-win for our family, my son and the public school.”