Florida Gives a Needed Change for Needy Kids

Florida Governor Rick Scott is considering approving expansion of a voucher for to allow special needs students to be homeschooled. The program known as the Gardiner Scholarship gives parents the resources necessary to homeschool children according to their unique needs.

A story from NPR titled “For These Families, Vouchers Bring A Needed Change,” interviews a parent who is currently taking advantage of this program:

Dorothy, of Spring Hill, Fla., has a 15-year-old son with spina bifida and developmental delays, and her 13-year-old daughter is, she says, “mildly autistic.” Neither was happy at public school. “My son was in a lockdown classroom with gang members. It was a bad situation. I was afraid he was going to get hurt,” Dorothy says. “My daughter was getting bullied because she spoke out of turn or would get upset easily. Twenty kids in a classroom was a lot for her.”

Today, Dorothy is homeschooling her son and daughter with the help of a novel item on the school choice menu: the Gardiner Scholarship. This voucher program, created in 2014, can be used by students with specific disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. It has grown rapidly and is now used by 7,000 Florida students.

A controversial education bill now before Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, would add $30 million to the program’s budget, amid other expansions to school choice.

Using the Gardiner, which provides an average $10,000 for each child, Dorothy has been able to purchase tablet computers, a camera, a telescope, books, online courses and other supplies and equipment to customize a curriculum for both teenagers.

“They are doing better than I ever could have imagined,” says Dorothy (we’re not using her last name to protect her children’s privacy). “Neither take any [psychiatric] medication anymore. There are no overstimulation issues.”

Only a few other states, including New Hampshire and North Carolina, support homeschoolers. Compared with charter school choice or private school vouchers, these programs give families the widest possible leeway to customize their children’s education while still receiving public support to pay for it.

Educational choice programs like Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship are continuing to expand throughout the country.

Educational choice programs like Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship are continuing to expand throughout the country. The Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program began in 2011 and initially was only offered to children with special needs. In 2017 the rowing demand by parents for more choice and success of the program led the Arizona legislature to approve expanding the program to nearly all K-12 students in the state. According to EdChoice there are 25 operating voucher programs in 14 states and four ESA programs in operation today. Many more states have implemented charter schools, Tax-Credit scholarships, and individual tax credits which have helped give parents even more choices for their child’s education.

As explained in the Opportunity Lives “Solutions Studio,” “School choice for children pre-K to grade 12 is a proven way of improving outcomes.  To the maximum extent possible, education policy should be shaped by parents, teachers and local communities – in that order.  States should compete with each other to create the education systems that will attract families and businesses.  And the federal government should facilitate and support local innovation. A child’s education shouldn’t just depend on their zipcode – and it shouldn’t be derailed because we weren’t courageous enough to overcome the status quo.”