Nick and Keely Cogan are pictured at their Tallahassee home with their children, four of whom participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Nick Cogan of Tallahassee first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

I’m a math professor at Florida State University. My wife Keely and I have seven children – three biological and four with special needs we adopted from China. Two have cerebral palsy, and two have Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a rare joint and limb condition.

All four are on the state’s Gardiner Scholarship, a flexible savings account that allows parents to spend their education dollars on the services such as school tuition, tutors, technology and curriculum that match their children’s unique needs. I don’t know where we would be without the scholarship. It has been a life-changer.

I believe all parents deserve the same opportunity.

Fortunately, a bill in the Florida Legislature would turn all the state’s school choice scholarships into flexible spending accounts like Gardiner. I hope it passes so more families can control their education dollars as they see fit.

We’ve used Gardiner for almost everything it’s been designed for. When we adopted our oldest son, Kai, he was an 11-year-old working on a first-grade level. It was hard to mainstream him. The public school district wanted to put him in fifth grade. Thankfully, we found a private school that was willing to put him with younger kids in a more academically appropriate environment. The Gardiner scholarship helped pay that private school tuition.

Later we decided to take Kai out of private school and homeschool him with his other siblings — Kade, Kassi and Karwen — who also attended a private school at one time or another. We rely on Gardiner to pay for books, curriculum, equipment and other educational supplies for all four kids.

Gardiner has made it possible for our children to receive the various physical and emotional therapies they require to develop. For instance, my daughter Kassi has made a lot of progress with her speech therapy. My health insurance covered only a limited amount of that therapy. Gardiner has ensured she gets the therapies that she needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been highly disruptive to education, and my homeschooled family has not been spared its effects. We typically participate in homeschool co-ops with other families, but those sessions have been suspended during the pandemic. 

The Gardiner program gave us the means and the ability to swiftly respond to the crisis and direct our children’s education dollars into effective alternatives.  

We bought pre-built curricula so we could have a consistent set of tools at home. These included some online resources and “workbook”-type resources. These have features for languages and math that offer dynamic feedback for students. We started a Duolingo classroom for the kids to learn Ukrainian (we are in the last stages of adopting two children from the Ukraine). The classroom option does a good job of tracking progress for us. We bought ours from a family-run business, which just shows the diversity of resources out there. 

I am a strong supporter of public schools, but because of their special needs, our kids would not fit there. Gardiner gives us options that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us. That applies to other families as well, as each child has unique learning requirements. It’s important to be able to customize education for each child.

That’s why I urge lawmakers to pass the bill that converts state scholarships to flexible spending accounts. The pandemic has showed that, now more than ever, families need as many options as possible.

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