Florida special needs scholarship expansion headed to Gov. Rick Scott

A measure expanding Florida’s newest educational option for special needs students is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The Florida House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved SB 672, which would allow more families to access Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts and give the program a new name.

The Gardiner Scholarship  — renamed for the family of Senate President Andy Gardiner, who championed the program — would be open to more students, including 3- and 4-year-olds and students with muscular dystrophy, as well as more children across the entire autism spectrum. The measure would also boost funding for scholarships to $71.2 million, and create new college programs for special-needs students.

The House approved the measure, which passed the Senate unanimously the day before, on a 109-1 vote without debate. The chamber’s lead education budget-writer, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said his colleagues needed little convincing. Significant portions of the bill were included in last year’s state budget.

“What this does is provide more clarity and more options for parents, especially those with the neediest of children in the state of Florida,” he said.

The Gardiner scholarships are administered by two scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Several advocates welcomed the bill’s passage in statements. Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said that as the mother of a special-needs child, she has seen firsthand the struggles parents can face getting the support their children need.

“This measure will give parents more options and resources to ensure brighter futures for their children,” she said.

The educational choice legislation wasn’t the only measure aimed at helping people with special needs that passed Thursday. The House also approved HB 7003, aimed at expanding job opportunities.

“By passing this bill, we will make it easier for Floridians with disabilities to achieve economic security and success,” bill sponsor Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said in a statement.