Gov. DeSantis moves to get rid of waitlist for scholarships for kids with disabilities, allowing more students to attend private schools with public dollars

With nearly 2,000 families on a waiting list to get scholarships for children with disabilities, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced that he’ll put more funds in the state’s Gardiner Scholarship program to cover the waiting list for next school year.

DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis made the announcement at the North Florida School of Special Education, a private school in Jacksonville serving students with intellectual and developmental disabilities ranging from autism spectrum disorder to Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

The Gardiner scholarship is a personalized program for private schools and home education programs – not public schools – and comes in the form of what’s called an education savings account that can be used for a variety of materials and services, including tutoring, physical therapy and speech/language services. The average scholarship is $10,000, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The program is administered by nonprofit scholarship funding organizations.

The extra dollars DeSantis proposes to get rid of the waitlist – about $18.8-million – are part of the governor’s proposed state budget for 2019-20 and a key part of his education agenda, which would allow more kids into private schools with public dollars.

Funding for the overall Gardiner program proposed by DeSantis is $147.1-million for 2019-20, which the Legislature must approve.

The nonprofit Step Up for Students, which administers four different scholarship programs in Florida, ran out of funds for the Gardiner Program for the current school year, said spokesperson Ron Matus.

“This may be the most popular education choice program in the country, with nearly universal support from Republicans and Democrats,” Matus said.

Gov. DeSantis has made “choice” programs a major part of his education agenda, supporting different types of schools, including public charter schools run by private groups and schools where students can get scholarships to attend private schools with public dollars.

DeSantis is also pushing to expand Florida’s varied scholarship programs and he says he’ll look into education savings accounts similar to the Gardiner Program – meaning not just for those for students with disabilities. His campaign platform included the possibility that the accounts could be used for low-income and working-class families.

Expanding those programs is likely to meet with opposition from educators and teacher unions as the issues come to the forefront during the 2019 legislative session.

A new nonprofit called the “School Choice Movement” launched recently and will be pushing for DeSantis’s agenda to expand scholarship programs.

Shawn Frost, the School Choice Movement’s director of Advocacy and Civic Engagement, praised DeSantis’s move to get rid of the Gardiner waitlist.

“At this morning’s Jacksonville event, we heard from parents who detailed the human impact this life-changing scholarship makes and the good it does for students and families. Those on the waitlist are living the reality that a dream deferred is a dream denied,” Frost said.

“We, as Floridians, can and must do more to provide as many opportunities as possible, so every child may succeed. We look forward to conversations with the Legislature to sort out the details of the budget, but feel this is an important initiative to support for current and future Florida students.”

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.


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