The longer students remain on Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship program, the more likely their parents are to spend money on curriculum, tutoring and specialized services, a new working paper finds.

The study, “Distribution of Education Savings Accounts Usage Among Families,” by Michelle Lofton of the University of Georgia and Martin Lueken of EdChoice, examines the spending patterns of families on the scholarship program over multiple years. It is the largest of its kind to date.

The Gardiner Scholarship, created in 2014 and named after State Sen. Andy Gardiner’s family, provides parents of students with special needs with a scholarship worth an average of around $10,000. It is set up as an education savings account (ESA) where parents can use the funds on more than just school tuition and fees. They also can purchase textbooks, school supplies, curriculum, tutoring, therapies and more. 

The scholarship is currently limited to students with specific needs such as autism, Down syndrome and spina bifida. Last year, 17,508 students received a Gardiner Scholarship, with more than 9,000 enrolling in one of 1,870 private schools.

According to the researchers, family spending patterns change the longer they remain on the program. As families become more familiar with the program, they begin to spend more money on expenses other than tuition and fees, representing a desire to further customize their child’s education.

The study also finds rural families are more likely to spend the scholarship on curriculum and instruction than on private school tuition.

“These findings imply that families enrolled in ESAs are learning from prior usage and are able to customize education to areas beyond tuition over the course of their child’s educational life cycle,” the researchers wrote.

Since 2015, families have averaged 21 purchases, spending $8,373 a year. Usage increased from 60% of funds in 2015 to 88% by 2019.

Expenditures on tuition increased by 11%, or $550 over that time. But expenditures on instructional materials, specialized services, and college tuition savings plans increased considerably more — instructional materials by 400%, or $1,375, and specialized services by 200%, or $450.

The number of purchases increased over time as well. In 2015 families averaged just nine purchases, but by 2019 families were averaging 30 purchases a year.  

Spending varied by race and income as well.

Parents of Black and Hispanic students spent more of their scholarship, on average, than white students. They were also 7 to 9% more likely to spend the scholarship on school tuition than white students.

Parents in the top-quartile income areas spent more money on fewer items but spent less on tuition and more on tutoring and specialized services than families in bottom-quartile income areas.

The Gardiner Scholarship will become part of the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year, though the ESA component of the program will remain exclusive to children with special needs. Florida’s McKay Scholarship, a voucher program for students with special needs, will also merge with the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2022.

Parents or guardians may apply for the scholarship here.

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