Editor’s note: This commentary from Patrice Whitfield of Jacksonville explains how her three younger children have benefited from state scholarship programs – and how her three older children could have benefited had the scholarship been available sooner.

As a mother of six, I’ve seen my share of struggles, especially when it comes to raising and educating my children. Thankfully, I received help through several state scholarship programs for low-income students and children with special needs.

Having tried multiple scholarship programs, I can say without a doubt that the flexibility the Gardiner Scholarship offers makes it my favorite.

The Gardiner Scholarship program is an education savings account program. Florida provides funds that I’m able spend on school tuition, tutoring, therapies, books, curriculum and more.

My sons Laurence (12th grade) and Christian (third grade) are both on the autism spectrum and qualify for the Gardiner Scholarship. My daughter Ghayda (fifth grade) is on the income-based Tax Credit Scholarship program. My oldest three have also used the income-based scholarship and gone on to graduate from high school.

Laurence and Christian each have unique needs. Though Laurence struggles with social settings, he performs better in the classroom than Christian. The Gardiner Scholarship has allowed me to afford tuition at Morning Star School in Jacksonville, where Laurence gets the help he needs.

Prior to Morning Star School, Laurence was a D-F student, but today he’s a senior on the A-honor roll. He wants to become a video game programmer when he grows up and he’s already off to a strong start. He even helped me pass my IT fundamentals certifications when I decided to start a new career path.

Christian is different. He is hyperactive and bounces around everywhere. I have to be more hands on with his education and that is why I decided to homeschool him for now.

Gardiner gives me flexibility to teach him things I want to him to learn, like focusing more on Black history as well as math and science. The funds help me afford curriculum and materials for science and math lessons where Christian is now excelling. He has mastered his multiplication tables and is learning division.

And next year we are looking to add ABA therapy, which can increase language and communication skills and improve attention, focus, social skills, memory and academic.

When I heard the Florida Legislature was going to merge the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship and give them the same spending flexibility as Gardiner, I thought that was a great idea.

With Ghayda’s income-based scholarship, we are restricted to only tuition and fees at Morning Star School. I don’t want to take away from anything Morning Star offers, I only want to add to it. I’d love to be able to use the scholarship to buy more books for Ghayda so we can focus more on her reading and spelling at home. The added flexibility would allow me to supplement and support my child’s already excellent education.

In fact, I wish I had the Gardiner Scholarship long ago for my oldest children.

One of my adult children still struggles with reading and writing today. Back when she was a student, she didn’t have the full support she needed. After seeing how Christian and Laurence have grown with the help of Gardiner, I know she would have done much better if I had the funds to supplement her learning at home.

I know that flexibility would have a big impact on many other families, too. I’d love to see the Legislature make all state scholarship programs as awesome as Gardiner.

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