Florida Board of Education makes way for new special needs scholarships

The Florida Board of Education paved the way Monday for hundreds of families to start receiving money through the state’s newest educational choice program, which is aimed at students with significant special needs. Board members also said the state should try to make sure funding for the program keeps up with demand.

The board quickly signed off on rules implementing the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program during its meeting in Tampa.

Adam Miller, who leads the Department of Education’s choice office, told the board he expects parents of about 650 students to receive funding for their accounts “within the next couple of days,” with more to follow.

So far, more than 1,000 students have been approved for the program, which is available to students with autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and five other special needs categories. It allows parents to pay for a wide array of education-related expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring and therapies. More than 3,700 have started applications.

It’s not clear how many applicants will wind up being awarded by the program, which may still face a legal challenge from the state teachers union (though that challenge hit a roadblock last week). The amount of funding for scholarships in future years will be based in part on the number of parents who apply before March 1.

One member of the state board, Marva Johnson, said “it would be good to know, at the end of this process, if there was greater need than we have funds to support.”

Board chairman Gary Chartrand said after the meeting that if demand for the scholarships outstrips the number funded by the state, the board should be prepared to go to the Legislature and “explain the demand that was there and see if we can get the amount increased.”