Florida Senate votes to grow, and rename, special needs scholarships

The Florida Senate this morning unanimously approved legislation expanding — and renaming — the state’s newest educational choice program for special needs students.

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

SB 672 would codify changes allowing 3- and 4-year olds, children with muscular dystrophy and more students with autism to qualify for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. It would also boost funding for the scholarships to $71.2 million and expand higher-education programs for children with special needs.

Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the accounts.

Under an amendment added today, the program would be renamed the Gardiner Scholarship, in honor of Senate President Andy Gardiner, who championed the scholarships since they were first created two years ago. He and his wife, Camille, have focused their legislative agenda on helping children like their son, Andrew, who has Down Syndrome.

“This is a bill that people come up to us with tears in their eyes and talk about how it’s changed their life,” Gardiner said, calling attention to a girl with special needs who was seated in the back of the chamber.

“She said, ‘I just want to go to college,'” Gardiner said. “Your bill will provide that path, from cradle to career.”

Every member of the chamber agreed to co-sponsor the measure. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, the chamber’s minority leader, praised Gardiner’s push to help students with what he prefers to call “unique abilities.”

“You fought for the most vulnerable — those who have no one to speak for them,” Joyner said.

The bill would also add accountability provisions for scholarship organizations and create new funding incentives for public schools that support school uniform policies — the latter of which drew questions from Democrats prior to the vote.

It now heads to the House, where it has passed two committee votes unanimously and is expected to be taken up on the floor Thursday.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.

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