JACKSONVILLE – Returning to the school where he first pledged to eliminate a waiting list for the Gardiner Scholarship, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday celebrated a boost in state funding for the program for students with special needs.
DeSantis spoke at North Florida School of Special Education, where in February he requested additional dollars in the 2019-20 state budget to provide scholarships to the more than 1,800 students on the Gardiner waiting list. Wednesday, he said that the new budget increases Gardiner funding by $23 million, to $147.9 million, which will allow the program to serve at least 2,000 more students. The scholarship served nearly 12,000 students this year.
“I campaigned to keep thousands of families off the waiting list because there just wasn’t enough money,” DeSantis told an audience of approximately 250 that included former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who led the legislative effort to establish the program in 2014 to honor his son Andrew, who has Down syndrome. “We’ve been successful. The Gardiner waiting list is no more.”
The Gardiner Scholarship, the nation’s largest education savings account program, serves students with certain special needs, such as Down syndrome, spina bifida and autism. Students on the autism spectrum make up about 63 percent of the Gardiner student population. (The program is managed by non-profits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Step Up already has awarded more than 8,600 students Gardiner scholarships for next year. Scholarships average about $10,400 and can be used to pay for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, school supplies, computers, therapies and more. Unspent money can roll over from year to year, and students may save for higher education endeavors.
Andy Gardiner told the audience at Wednesday’s event that his 15-year-old son was unable to attend because he was driving to a job interview – proof that special needs should not be an obstacle in life.
“When he was born, we made a commitment to help him and other families (with children with special needs),” Gardiner said. “Our son doesn’t have a disability. He has a unique ability. And our job is to help children find their unique abilities. To see where (the scholarship) has come and to have met the many families, we are completely humbled.”
Parent Brittney Wilson, who also spoke at the governor’s February event, thanked DeSantis Wednesday for delivering on his promise to end the current waiting list. She homeschools her three sons, two of whom are on the waiting list.
“The additional funding for the Gardiner program will open doors that previously had been closed,” she said. “I’m eager and excited to have more opportunities for my sons to learn. I’m already looking into enrichment classes they can take, such as a zoo academy that provides hands-on learning with peers their own age. … It’s like a floodgate has opened right now.”
Tamara Blankinchip said she would not be able to send her daughter Hannah to North Florida School for Special Education without the Gardiner Scholarship. Hannah has Down syndrome and autism; five years ago, she also suffered an infection that spread to her brain, compromising her immune system and forcing her out of a traditional school. Her family uses the scholarship for curriculum, speech therapy and a tutor, among other things.
“When we pulled Hannah out of school, I was so afraid she would lose everything she learned and fall way behind,” said Blankinchip, whose voice trembled as she teared up. “But she is still right on target with her age group. She reads beautifully, she writes, she spells. I tease my husband that she spells better than he does. She can count money and tell time. She is a thinker and a problem-solver. This would not have happened without the Gardiner Scholarship. …
“Thank you so much, Gov. DeSantis, for expanding this amazing scholarship for so many kids like Hannah. I am humbled to speak for countless other parents and say that we are forever grateful you have made our children so important in your work for our state.”
Editor’s note: redefinED is supporting National Autism Awareness Month each Saturday in April by reposting articles from our archives that celebrate those who champion the educational rights of children with autism. Today’s post, which originally appeared in September 2018, features a mother and son that found success through a Gardiner Scholarship.
By Livi Stanford
Every day was a battle for Jared Wendlberger in school.
The 7-year old, at the time, would come home in tears, after his backpack and lunch were stolen by his classmates.
Jared, who has high-functioning autism, was placed in an emotional behavior disorder class in the second grade. Some of the students in the class were two years older and several of them were violent, his mother, Sandy Edwards, remembers.
Jared was bullied regularly and it affected him on many levels. He was self-conscious about everything and became withdrawn. He was unable to finish his school work and was performing poorly.
But the abuse did not happen just at school. He faced it with other adults in his life, in encounters that had to be handled in the court system. He was beaten and ended up with a major concussion.
Edwards moved Jared from three different public schools to a private school. But each school presented new challenges.
Jared found it hard to participate in a classroom setting. He was reluctant to finish his work and became argumentative with the teacher. He would say no to everything. Depending on the situation, he would either display zero emotion or every emotion. He would read something and burst into tears. These were traits, his mother says, that are common for children with high-functioning autism.
“We were in the midst of the trauma of behavior issues,” Edwards said. “There were days when I did not know what I would do as a parent because there were times when the behavior was so bad that we were almost at our wit’s end.”
An administrator at her son’s private school then told her about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children with severe special needs to pay for therapy, school tuition and other education-related services of their choice. The scholarship afforded Edwards the ability to tailor education programs, high-end curriculum and therapies to suit her son’s needs.
The Gardiner Scholarship is also unique in another way among the educational choice options that Florida provides: It provides scholarship support for parents who choose home education for their children. Last year, 1,615 students with autism were homeschooled with help from Gardiner.
Now in his fourth year as a homeschooled student, Jared is thriving, Edwards said. He is ahead in every class and is taking Algebra 1 as a seventh grader.
“When you talk about the power homeschooling has given me to provide him the best path, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Edwards said.
With the scholarship, Edwards can provide a full engineering curriculum for her son, who aspires to go to MIT. She ordered a Lego robotics kit and enrolled him in occupational therapy to help him work on hand-eye coordination and growth motor skills.
The Lego set has a programmable robotic brain, so he can create working prototypes. Next year, he will be old enough to join a robotics team. Within a homeschooling environment, he can work one-on-one with his mother figuring out problems. This makes it easier for him to grasp concepts.
Writing is his biggest challenge.
“It is not coming up with the words on paper,” Edwards said. “It is the act of putting the words on paper. He is so self-conscious about his penmanship.”
While in the school system, Jared worried so much about the penmanship he was paralyzed from writing anything coherent, Edwards said.
Now he is constantly working on his writing, overcoming his anxieties. He is performing above grade level.
Jared is in many ways your typical middle school child. Oftentimes, you will find him with a book, his mother says. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are his favorites. He also loves to build things.
To a great degree, Edwards credits the scholarship options. “Having my son, I have learned that these choices are so important for kids because no kid fits in the same box as another child,” she said.
Other students with autism have also benefited from homeschooling with the help of the Gardiner scholarship.
Erin Voshell’s son, Garrett, who also has autism, was bullied and struggled in traditional public schools.
Voshell said he couldn’t complete 50 percent of the work in fifth grade.
The family looked for options and thought about enrolling him in a high-functioning autism private school. But administrators said he was too high-functioning, Voshell said.
Looking for a different option, Voshell learned about Gardiner, and like Edwards, found that coupling the program with homeschooling was the most beneficial option for her son.
Now he is enrolled in Classical Conversations, a worldwide homeschool curriculum focused on the classical method of teaching. He is taking Latin and Algebra. The 14-year-old is performing better than he did in the traditional public-school system, his mother says.
In public school, Garrett was timid and did not want to engage in much conversation. The scholarship provides Garrett with Applied Behavior Analysis, a therapeutic approach that helps students with autism improve their communication, social and academic skills.
As a result, he became more confident, Voshell said.
“You can see how lighthearted, fun and happy he is,” said Voshell. “He loves school now. That is not something you hear out of a 14-year-old.”
Garrett hopes to become a video game designer. The scholarship allowed Voshell to buy her son a computer that teaches him how to code for video game design.
“The (Gardiner) program has helped to give me my child back,” she said.
Editor’s note: redefinED continues its journey through the archives, reviving on Saturdays interesting posts on various topics that deserve a second look. Throughout March, we’re featuring pieces on school accountability. In today’s post, which originally appeared in October 2018, Step Up For Students’ public affairs manager Patrick Gibbons interprets a study that examined the impact of three potential regulations on a hypothetical voucher program.
Ramping up regulations on a hypothetical school choice voucher program results in fewer private schools opting to participate, and lower quality among those that do, according to a new study released this week.
The study is based on responses from private school leaders in Florida.
“The Effects of Regulations on Private School Choice Program Participation: Experimental Evidence from Florida” is spotlighted in the latest edition of Education Next. It examined the impact of three different potential regulations on a hypothetical voucher program: standardized testing, open-enrollment, and the prohibition of charging tuition beyond the voucher amount.
Researchers Corey A. DeAngelis, Lindsey Burke and Patrick J. Wolf emailed 3,080 private schools in Florida and received 327 completed surveys. Of the responding schools, 57 percent were religious, 70 percent accepted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, 65 percent accepted the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities, and 54 percent accepted the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit and Gardiner Scholarships, and publishes this blog.
Schools were randomly assigned to one of four groups, including a control group whose leaders were asked if they’d participate in a hypothetical voucher program worth $6,500 and came with no additional regulations. The other groups were assigned one of the three regulations.
Private schools were 17 percentage points less likely to participate with an open-enrollment requirement, and up to 11 percentage points less likely to participate with a state standardized test requirement. (Standardized testing is required for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, but participating schools are allowed by law to choose from a range of state-approved tests beyond the Florida Standards Assessment required for public schools.)
For every $1,000 increase in private school tuition, there was a corresponding decrease of 1.4 percentage point participation when a state standardized testing mandate was offered.
Prohibiting private schools from charging tuition beyond the voucher amount also had a negative effect, but the result was not statistically significant.
All three of these regulations are present in Louisiana’s voucher program, which drew a fair amount of unflattering publicity because of negative, short-term impacts on test results. Some researchers have hypothesized that the regulations may have reduced the number and quality of participating private schools.