Fla. Senate panel approves expansion of special needs scholarship accounts

A measure expanding Florida’s newest educational choice program continued its string of bipartisan support, getting approval this afternoon from a Senate panel.

The bill would boost funding for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, which are available to students with significant special needs, and allow 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as more children with autism, to access them.

It would expand uses for the accounts and add accountability provisions for scholarship organizations that help administer the program. One such organization, Step Up For Students, hosts this blog and employs the author of this post. Because the changes were part of a spending plan approved earlier this year during a special budget session, they will expire in the summer if they aren’t made permanent.

Andrea Wiggins is a mother of five who has used three different private school choice programs — including the tax credit scholarship program for low-income students, which is also administered by Step Up, and a McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities.

She told the Senate Education Committee the accounts allow her to afford Catholic school tuition for her daughter, who has multiple special needs. But unlike traditional school choice programs, it also helps her afford tutoring and additional curriculum materials to help her daughter at home. The account, Wiggins said, “allows me to build the exact educational environment and plan that will best suit her needs.”

“Not one educational environment works best for every child or even every family,” she said. “I am grateful that the Legislature has allowed us access to options.”

The measure, SB 672 by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would also expand higher education programs aimed at special-needs students — changes that were vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Rick Scott — and would help fund school uniforms at public schools while allowing more charter schools to take advantage of the program.

The committee approved the bill with a lone no vote by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. An identical bill cleared a House panel unanimously on Tuesday.

In a statement after the vote, Gaetz said the bill was part of Senate President Andy Gardiner’s plan to “solidify a cradle to career pathway to economic independence for people with unique abilities.”

“We recognize that it is not the government, but individuals with unique abilities and their families who make the best decisions about their own academic aspirations and career goals,” Gaetz said. “Our role is to make sure that we have the proper resources in place and that families have the facts they need to make informed choices.”