Editor’s note: This post from longtime Sarasota resident, mother and special education teacher Keri Zane appeared earlier today in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

As a mother with a daughter on the Gardiner Scholarship for special needs students, I was puzzled by Carol Lerner’s recent column criticizing a proposal to give parents more educational choices for their children.

Lerner wrote that while “vouchers fund only private schools, education savings accounts can fund so much more.” Yes, and thank goodness for that! 

I’m a single mom and a special needs teacher raising three children.

My oldest child, Avaryanna, is 11 years old; she is severely dyslexic and has attention deficit disorder, as well as anaphylaxis and auditory and sensory processing disorder. She has been on the Gardiner Scholarship for four years.

Her brother, Victor – who is 9 years old – is also dyslexic; he is on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. My youngest child, LeeEmry, is 4 years old and in voluntary pre-kindergarten. I already detect early signs of dyslexia in LeeEmry, and I will seek to get her on the tax credit scholarship when she starts kindergarten.

The scholarships have allowed me to put my kids in one school, Dunn Prep/Woodland Early Childhood Center, that best meets their learning needs. And it also helps me with my busy schedule: I don’t have to run around to different schools for each child.

The Gardiner program stands apart in Florida in that it operates as an education savings account, which allows parents to spend their children’s scholarship dollars on a wide variety of things – private school tuition, educational materials, therapies and other services – so that learning can be customized to suit a student’s individual needs. I believe that the Gardiner program’s flexible spending approach should be applied to other education scholarships in our state.

Children have so many unique learning needs that it makes sense to give parents as many educational options as possible: public, private, homeschool, “pod” – whatever works. That seems especially important during this pandemic, which has forced brick-and-mortar classrooms to close – and forced children to do online learning at home.

That works for some kids, but it doesn’t work for others; they need alternatives.

I’ve relied on multiple choices for my children’s education. Avaryanna cannot function in a traditional classroom, so we tried a charter school for both her and Victor. But that didn’t work out, so I homeschooled Avaryanna and Victor for a period of time.

I wish I had known about the Gardiner Scholarship back then because it would have eased the financial burden on my family. I’m thankful that I discovered Dunn Prep, which has been a great fit for all my kids. And I’m grateful that a friend told me about Gardiner; it has been a blessing for my oldest daughter.

Gardiner helped me buy an iPad for Avaryanna, which she uses to access educational apps, online learning and other programs. I would love to be able to use a portion of Victor’s tax credit scholarship to also supplement his learning.

To quote Laura Weaver and Mark Wilding, authors of “The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching,” “When students feel safe and supported, they are truly able and ready to learn.” To best achieve that we should make it easier for all parents to make the best educational decisions for their children – whether it’s choosing a public school, a private school, a homeschool or another option.

At the end of the day, what matters most is that our children, all our children, reach their full potential. That’s much more important than the type of school – or the type of educational program – that allows them to reach their full potential.

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