Education savings accounts program awaits Florida governor’s signature


By Mary C. Tillotson |

Parents of children with severe disabilities are applauding Florida’s lawmakers for passing a bill to help them pay for the tutoring and therapies their children need.

The bill is awaiting a signature from Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida’s legislators passed a bill allowing parents of children with certain disabilities to customize their children’s education and therapy.

Melissa Ward was one of several parents who testified in favor of the bill at a subcommittee meeting. Her third child was born 17 weeks prematurely and, as a result, has cerebral palsy. He is now 8 years old.

Her son has difficulties with gross and fine motor skills. He has trouble walking and balancing, a speech impediment and lagging handwriting. A psychiatrist told Ward her son was an ideal child for homeschooling.

“Where he excelled, we could go and he would not be held back, and where he needed extra attention and (to) slow down his pace, I could do that with him,” she said.

Her son receives physical therapy, which costs several hundred dollars out of pocket, Ward said.

“He really needs occupational therapy and speech therapy,” she said. “The doctor gave us a list of tutors they recommended for math, and we were not able to afford that. It was astronomical how much it would cost to take him in tutoring.”

Other parents testifying at the meeting echoed Ward’s difficulties with their own.

Florida Sen. Andy Gardiner’s bill allows for Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts, which are modeled on Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or education savings accounts. Parents receive a certain amount of money in an account they can spend on approved tutoring, therapy, curricula, textbooks or other educational expenses. Only children with specific special needs, including Down Syndrome and autism, are eligible.

“It’ll be helpful because for the first time, it’s a choice program that really allows a parent to customize education and services that their child needs in a way that best meets their child’s needs,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Florida has a variety of school choice programs already, but it’s often hard for parents to find a school that has all the services their child needs, Levesque said. The PLSAs give parents the flexibility to pay for the variety of services their children need.

“With children with special needs, there’s no cookie-cutter answer for each one,” Gardiner said. “Depending on the special need – I like to call them ‘unique abilities,’ not disabilities – you need that flexibility. Maybe it’s a lot of speech therapy. Maybe it’s doing the behavioral analysis which children with autism really gravitate to. (The program) allows the parents to make a decision that’s best for their child.”

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