Gardiner Scholarship funding expected to increase by $23 million

Patrick R. Gibbons
Gardiner scholarship

Aleena Martinez and her mother, Damaris Lorenzo, pose with Aleena’s beloved stuffed animals. Aleena is one of nearly 1,900 Florida students on a wait list for the Gardiner Scholarship for children and young adults with certain special needs. That waiting list will be served thanks to an increase in scholarship funding.

Largely unnoticed in the debate over a new K-12 voucher program intended to reduce the waiting list for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships was the money state lawmakers budgeted for Gardiner Scholarships. Gardiner was created in 2014 to serve students with severe special needs, and the appropriations bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis boosts funding by $23 million next year.

In February, the governor visited Gardiner private schools in Jacksonville and Orlando and pledged to eliminate the waiting list that stood at about 1,876 students then. “As long as I’m governor, don’t worry about the Gardiner scholarship,” he said. “We’re going to be here and support it.”

The new budget, which pushes Gardiner funding to $147.9 million, will serve at least 2,000 more students. That would put the total at more than 14,000.

The Gardiner program serves students with specific special needs including autism, Down Syndrome and spina bifida. Students on the autism spectrum make up about 63 percent of the Gardiner student population.

Scholarships average about $10,400 and can be used to pay for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, school supplies, computers, therapies and more. Unspent money can roll over from year to year and students may save for higher education endeavors.

For 2018-19, the program served 11,529 students with scholarships from Step Up For Students, a non-profit scholarship organization that hosts this blog. A separate nonprofit, AAA Scholarship Foundation, served another 800 students.

More than 8,200 already have been awarded Gardiner scholarships from Step Up for next year, and parents may apply for the Gardiner Scholarship on the Step Up website here. Renewal families will retain priority for scholarship funding until June 30. All new students will remain on a waitlist until then.

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