Florida created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2001 to give low-income students one learning option that is not available to them because of their financial circumstances. It allows them to consider whether a private school might be a better fit academically.
The program served 78,120 students in 1,594 private schools throughout the state during the 2015-16 school year, and the mix is truly eclectic. The schools that have chosen to join the cause of helping underprivileged students run the gamut – everything from the six-student Walden Middle School in Gulfport to the 1,512-student Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale. The average school in the 2014-2015 school year has 45 scholarship students.
Lives near poverty: The average household income is $25,557, or 7.2 percent above poverty. The standard for free or reduced lunch in public schools is 185 percent of poverty.
Is black or Hispanic: Some 30 percent of students are black and 38 percent Hispanic. Roughly 24 percent are white and another 3 percent identify as multi-racial.
Lives with one parent: 58.3 percent of the scholarship children are from single-parent households.
Has struggled academically: A state-commissioned researcher has determined that scholarship students “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”
Is small in size: The average total enrollment is 161 students.
Serves mostly private-paying students: Of the 1,594 participating private schools, Step Up students make up an average of 24 percent of total enrollment. Only 182 schools serve more than 100 scholarship students.
Serves elementary students: Of the 78,120 students served, 37 percent of all scholarship students are in grades K-2 and 66 percent in grades K-5.
Is faith-based: 69 percent of the schools are faith-based. The 193 Catholic schools represent the largest single group.
Scholarship students are tested: Every scholarship student in grades 3-10 is required to take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the state.
Academic gains are measured and reported: A University of Florida research team each year publicly reports the test gains in reading and math, both statewide and for schools with at least 30 students.
Scholarship money is monitored: Every school receiving more than $250,000 in scholarship money each year must file a financial report by an independent CPA.
More low-income students are choosing this option
The Gardiner Scholarship program (formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts or PLSA) is a unique program for children with special needs. The scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their children by directing money toward a combination of programs and approved providers. Florida became the second state in the nation, after Arizona, to create an education savings account program for children with special needs in 2014.
Florida’s newest school choice program began enrolling students less than two months after being signed into law. More than 1,500 students received scholarships in the inaugural 2014-15 school year.
In 2016, the Florida legislature renamed the program in honor of Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family. Gardiner and his wife Camille have championed the cause of children with unique abilities for many years. The Gardiners have two daughters and a son, Andrew, who has Down syndrome.
Step Up managed the scholarship accounts of 4,365 students and AAA Scholarships served an additional 251 for the 2015-16 school year. In all, $46.3 million in scholarships were awarded.
- 60 percentof students were diagnosed with autism
- 27 percent have an intellectual disability
- 4 percent have cerebral palsy,
- 4 percent were diagnosed as a “high-risk” child
- 3 percent have Down syndrome
- 2 percent were diagnosed with one of the other eligible disabilities such as Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, and Williams Syndrome.
Student eligibility: This scholarship is for Florida students 3-years old through 12th grade, or up to age 22, with one of the following disabilities: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina bifida, Williams syndrome or Intellectual Disability (severe cognitive impairment). Also, students aged 3 to 5 deemed “high risk” because of developmental delays may be eligible.
Students can continue to receive scholarship funding until they graduate from high school, reach age 22 or return to public school. Unspent money in the account rolls over from year to year and is refunded to the state if the student has not enrolled in any eligible post secondary institution for three consecutive years following high school graduation.
Scholarship account value: The scholarship amount varies according to grade and county but averages about $10,200 per student. The scholarship is higher for students whose disability is rated above a level 3 (known as Matrix 253). The parent may request an evaluation from the school district to determine whether the student qualifies.
Eligible expenses: The Gardiner Scholarship can be used to pay for tuition and fees at an eligible private school, applied behavior analysis services, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapy, physical therapy, services from listening and spoken language specialists, private tutoring from a certified teacher, virtual programs or online courses, exam fees, contract services from school districts, contributions to the state prepaid college program, instructional materials such as digital devices and assistive technology, and curriculum materials. Preapproved expenses can be viewed here.
Reimbursements and provider payments: Parents may seek reimbursement for approved expenses by submitting receipts online with a description of the educational purpose of the purchase. Participating service providers, such as therapists, tutors and schools, may also invoice parents and be paid directly from the account. Parents may review the scholarship handbook here.
The bill creating the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (now called the Gardiner Scholarship ) passed largely along party lines and was signed into law in June, 2014. Before the first scholarships were awarded the Florida Education Association filed suit against the state to end the fledgling program. Lawyers for the teacher union called the special needs students a “collateral casualty” of the lawsuit. The lawsuit was dismissed in December, 2014.
Over the next two years an outpouring of support from parents helped the public understand the impact of scholarships for children with unique abilities.
By the 2016 legislative session the Gardiner Scholarship received nearly unanimous support for an expansion bill. That bill made students with muscular dystrophy and all students along the autism spectrum eligible for scholarships, while the eligibility age was dropped to 3- and 4-year olds. The state legislature also increased the program funding to $71 million, enough for approximately 7,000 scholarships.