By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday touted a proposal to spend an additional $18.8 million next year on a program that provides voucher-like scholarships to students with disabilities, saying he trusts “parents to make the best decision” for the education of their children.
DeSantis appeared at schools in Jacksonville and Longwood to discuss his budget proposal, which would provide enough money to eliminate an 1,800-student waiting list in the Gardiner Scholarship Program. At the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, the governor was joined by former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who spearheaded creation of the program.
“We will be fighting for this money,” said DeSantis, who also appeared at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville. “I think we’re going to get it because I think most people realize it’s money well-spent.”
DeSantis, who took office Jan. 8, is a supporter of school-choice programs, which have been among the most-controversial issues in the state’s education system for the past two decades. Supporters say voucher-type programs and charter schools give more opportunities to parents and students, while critics argue they strip money from traditional public schools and lack accountability.
But the Gardiner Scholarship Program has drawn relatively little controversy compared to other school-choice programs. As of October, it served nearly 12,000 students, with an average scholarship of $10,418, according to information posted on the state Department of Education website.
Families can use the money for a variety of purposes, including educational materials and therapy services, but 68 percent use it for tuition and fees at private schools, the Department of Education website said. The largest group of students in the program, 66 percent, are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, while others have disabilities such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.
Gardiner, whose son, Andrew, has Down syndrome, served as Senate president from 2014 and 2016 and made a priority of issues involving people with disabilities — or “unique abilities” as he calls them. He said he began creating the program in 2014.
“What’s special about this scholarship is it allows for a parent to decide what is in the best interest of their child,” Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, said. “Maybe it’s more speech therapy, maybe it’s more occupational therapy. Maybe it’s tuition.”
The Gardiner Scholarship money was included in a $91.3 billion budget proposal that DeSantis released Friday for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Lawmakers will use the proposal as a starting point as they negotiate a final spending plan during the legislative session that starts March 5.
If his Gardiner Scholarship proposal is approved, funding for the program would increase to $147.1 million during the coming year, according to budget information from DeSantis’ office.
DeSantis has quickly focused on education issues since taking office, releasing a series of initiatives. And while he backs school choice, he also indicated Monday he is working with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on a proposal to increase accountability for charter-school operators.
“For the charter operators, if they’re coming in and doing these fly-by-night charters, where they open up, make some money and leave, we’re going to create a … list to where you’re blacklisted in Florida from being able to get these contracts in the future,” DeSantis said. “If you’re a bad actor, you’re going on the list, and we’re not going to let you move around to different communities, make money and then not serve the interests of students and parents.”