Florida is a national leader in raising the academic performance of students with disabilities, an accomplishment documented on federal assessments regularly administered in every state. We should all be very proud of that.
I believe one strategy that helped bring it about is Florida’s policy of empowering parents to make educational choices for these children. One very successful program has been the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which provides tuition to private schools. It is overwhelmingly popular with parents, and now serves more than 26,000 students.
This year we are building on this success with Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs). This program will give parents the ability to direct funding not only toward tuition but also toward individually tailored speech, occupational or physical therapy services, digital devices, assistive technology, targeted curricular materials and even tuition at an eligible college or university.
The accounts will average about $10,000 annually.
I am a father who personally understands the unique challenges faced by the parents of these students. I understand the frustrations they face in advocating for their children. I understand their deep commitment to their children. I understand that they are best able to make decisions for their children.
That is why this PLSA bill was a priority for me. I deeply appreciate my colleagues in the Legislature for passing this bill and Gov. Rick Scott for signing it. They acted on behalf of our community of families. They gave us the power to choose for our children.
The beneficiaries will include school-age children (K-12) who have an individual education plan or who have been diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina bifida, Williams syndrome, or other specified intellectual challenges. Students with developmental delays who are entering kindergarten may also be eligible.
It was not that long ago when many students with disabilities were set aside in public education because it was assumed they could not learn or could not share classrooms with other students. It was the advocacy of parents that ended these discriminatory and damaging policies.
For this reason, I think it is deeply regrettable that before the first parent could even submit an application for a PLSA, the Florida Education Association — our statewide teachers union — filed a lawsuit to block it.
The union bosses can spin the lawsuit however they want. But the bottom line is this: They view every opportunity that gives parents freedom to make education choices as a threat to their power. They are advocates for their union, not your children.
Look at the families who will lose if they win.
If successful, the union lawsuit will eliminate the PLSAs, along with new provisions that expand eligibility and create strong academic and financial accountability standards for Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This scholarship program provides school choice options for low-income families. As with the McKay scholarships, it is overwhelmingly popular with parents, with demand far exceeding the number of slots available.
The facts are clear.
Neither program has taken or will take one dollar from any student in the public school system. In fact, while passing this legislation, the Legislature also increased spending for public education to the highest level in the history of our state.
I do not believe this lawsuit embodies the views of the talented teachers across our state who actually work with these children day in and day out and see the progress they are capable of making if provided the appropriate tools. And it is unfortunate the hard-earned money our teachers contribute to their union is funding this litigation.
The good news for Florida families is that we will not turn our backs on these children. As long as I am in the process, the Senate will work to empower parents, particularly the parents of our most vulnerable children. We will not be deterred by union bosses, union politics or union lawyers.
I encourage my fellow parents of children with unique abilities to ignore the union and investigate whether a PLSA best meets the needs of your families. Visit www.floridaschoolchoice.org/Information/plsa/ to determine if your child may be eligible during the 2014-15 year.
It is important to apply early as space is limited.
These children and their families may not be a union priority, but they are my priority.
Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is the incoming president of the Florida Senate.