Archive | Education savings accounts

What all is in that massive Florida education bill?

Today, the Florida Senate is expected to vote on the biggest education bill of this year’s legislative session.

A contentious teachers union certification proposal might overshadow the rest of HB 7055.

But the bill also contains a wide range of provisions related to charter schools and educational choice. Here’s a rundown of what the Senate’s proposed rewrite would do.

Charter schools

High-performing charter schools would be able to replicate — meaning, open a similar school in a new location — twice a year, rather than just once. Last year, HB 7069 allowed high-performing charters to replicate more than once if they opened new schools in the vicinity of a persistently struggling public school.

In addition, the bill would place new legal standards on school boards that want to close charters. They would only be able to shut down charters for “material” violations of state law, rather than any law violations. School districts could still to shutter charters for financial problems, or for failing to meet academic goals. But they would have to appear before the state Division of Administrative Hearings before closing a charter school. This issue was the subject of some debate on the Senate floor.

District freedoms

Florida’s principal autonomy pilot program would be a pilot no more. It would be open to any school district in the state.

And principals granted autonomy through the program could manage entire networks of schools, known as “innovation zones.” The networks would operate within their districts and be exempt from many state education regulations. These schools would not be overseen by independent boards beyond the reach of their school district, as previous versions of the legislation contemplated.

School facilities Continue Reading →


Fla. Senate panel tweaks wide-ranging education legislation, sends it to floor

The Florida Senate’s approach to a wide-ranging education proposal cleared its final committee hurdle this afternoon.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to send the measure to the floor during a contentious hearing dominated by the body’s response to a school shooting in Broward County earlier this month.

The panel made several key tweaks to its rewrite of HB 7055. Continue Reading →


How thousands of Florida parents are customizing education for children with special needs

Florida’s newest private school choice program is no ordinary voucher, a new report finds.

The analysis, released this week by EdChoice, found that in the first two years of the Gardiner Scholarship program, roughly four out of ten parents used the scholarships to pay for multiple educational services — not just private school tuition.

The scholarship program is available to children with specific special needs. It has grown to become the nation’s largest education savings account. The accounts allow parents to control the funding the state would spend to educate their child. They can spend the money on a range of education-related expenses, from textbooks and school tuition to tutoring and therapy.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarships and provided the data used in the report.

During the 2015-16 school year, 42 percent of parents were “customizers” who used their scholarships for multiple education-related expenses. Source: EdChoice

Educational choice advocates have embraced ESAs because they’re more versatile than conventional vouchers. Lindsey Burke,  director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation and one of the report’s authors, said data suggests parents appreciate that flexibility.

Continue Reading →

In memory of Brandon Berman

Brandon Berman

Brandon sat quietly in his wheelchair but grew increasingly agitated as his lawyer, Clint Bolick, answered rapid-fire questions from an aggressive reporter.

His mother, Donna Berman, stood behind him, worrying he might erupt into a fit, or worse, a seizure.

Brandon’s service dog Cody even sensed the frustration and made a noise in defense of his best friend.

“Can we get him out of here?,” Brandon muttered about the reporter.

Another reporter noticed his agitation. “We’ve been trying to get rid of him for years,” he quipped.

Brandon, who had autism, smiled and kept his composure.

Brandon was 16 at the time. He and his mom had come to Tallahassee to attend a hearing for Faase v. Scott. Florida’s statewide teachers union filed the case to halt a 2014 law that expanded the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), a scholarship program for children with special needs.

After years of struggles in public and private schools, Brandon and his mom felt the new program finally offered a path to an education that would work for him. They, along with other parents and students, jumped into the lawsuit to come to its defense.

Lawyers for the teacher unions claimed tax credit scholarships were their primary target. Brandon and other children using PLSAs were simply “collateral damage.” The two programs were linked in a sweeping piece of legislation the union argued violated the state constitution.

Brandon, his fellow intervenors, and the state’s lawyers ultimately prevailed.

Their win set the stage for a series of other legal victories for Florida’s school choice programs. The infant program they helped defend has blossomed into the nation’s largest education savings account program. It’s now called the Gardiner Scholarship, and it supports more than 10,000 students with special needs.  Continue Reading →

Arizona is the next Nevada, so who is the next Arizona?

Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona signed a universal education savings account (ESA) bill into law Thursday night, making Arizona the second state to pass a universal ESA program.

However, Arizona may be the first state to actually implement a universal ESA as the Nevada Supreme Court struck down the Silver State’s funding mechanism last year. ESAs in the Grand Canyon State have already survived a constitutional challenge.

Although the program is theoretically universal, with 1.1 million students in the state eligible, it will allow only limited growth until it reaches a cap of 30,000 students by 2022. Continue Reading →

Fla. House panel backs private school choice bill after spending changes

Scholarship parent Tiffani Hinds testifies before the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Private school choice legislation received bipartisan backing this afternoon from a Florida House panel.

As approved by the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, HB 15 would increase the funding each student receives through the state’s tax credit scholarship program. Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program.

The committee removed from the bill provisions that would have expanded the conditions that would allow students to qualify for Gardiner scholarships and tripled funding for the program, which provides education savings accounts for children with special needs. (Step Up also helps administer Gardiner scholarships.)

Legislators also removed a provision that would have allowed students to receive McKay scholarships — vouchers for special needs students — without attending public schools for an entire school year.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the provisions had to be removed to maneuver through the state budget process. She said she hoped to revive them as lawmakers revise their spending plans. Continue Reading →

Bill would boost Florida special needs scholarships


The nation’s largest education savings account program would triple in size under a bill filed yesterday by the Florida Senate’s lead education budget writer.

SB 902 by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would boost funding for Gardiner Scholarships from $71.2 million to $200 million.

It would also expand the list of conditions that allow students to qualify for the scholarships, which are available to children with specific special needs. The bill would make scholarships available to hearing and visually impaired students, those with traumatic brain injuries and those who are hospital or homebound.

The scholarships are designed to be worth approximately 90 percent of the amount the state would spend to educate a child in public schools. Parents can use the money to pay for private school tuition, homeschool curriculum, therapies, public-school courses, college savings and other approved education-related expenses. Continue Reading →

School choice programs adapt to help young adults with special needs

When people learn Robert Breske is the father of a teenager with Down syndrome, they sometimes tell him they’re sorry. That isn’t what he wants to hear. He’ll tell them children like his soon-to-be-15-year-old son, Bobby, have changed his life — and the world — for the better.

“They are closest things to God,” he said during an event earlier this month at Orlando’s Morning Star Catholic School, a faith-based special education center Bobby attends. “They are that way all through their whole lives.”

Bishop Noonan

Bishop John Noonan blesses a new transition facility for young adults with special needs at Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando.

In recent decades, advances in medicine and early intervention programs have made their lives richer and longer than ever. And that has created a new set of questions for parents like Breske, whose special-needs children will need to prepare for life as adults.

Public policy is starting to adapt. Recent federal legislation created savings accounts that can help adults with special needs pay their living expenses. New Florida laws promote college and career-training programs. And schools, both public and private, have expanded programs aimed at preparing students like Bobby to get part-time jobs and care for themselves.

The elder Breske was helping unveil a renovated house at Morning Star. The structure once housed nuns on the 56-year-old school site, but it’s been converted to help students in its young-adult transition program learn how to cook, clean and live independently. Recent changes to Florida educational choice programs mean similar programs could soon be growing at private schools around the state.

“We all know we’re going to away one day,” Breske said, describing the anxiety many parents feel as their special needs children grow older. “And what’s going to happen to them?”

Camille Gardiner, who also has a son with Down syndrome, said parents like her were less likely to face that question a generation ago. In the 1970s, children born with Down syndrome were only expected to live into their 20s. Now, their life expectancy is about 60. As a devout Catholic, she said, “I have come to realize that being pro-life does not end at the birth of a child. In many ways, that’s where it starts.”

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