New voucher program helps Florida students with special needs

Adriana Mantilla knew traditional school settings weren’t working for her gifted but autistic son.

Ten-year old Armando had tried a private school, but the staff didn’t have the expertise he needed. Public school classrooms were too big and distracting, the work too repetitive to keep his interest.

Mantilla, who lives in Kendall, thought homeschooling would be too expensive — until her son won a $10,000 scholarship as part of a new program with children for special needs. The money can be used for homeschooling materials, as well as tutoring, private-school tuition and various types of therapies.

“I was like, oh my gosh, this is perfect,” Mantilla said. “Our income is very limited. A lot of the resources are expensive.”

Just five months after winning approval from state lawmakers, the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program is becoming a reality for families across Florida. Last week, the state Board of Education approved new rules governing the scholarship initiative. More than 1,000 schoolchildren have been named recipients.

But the reception has not been universally warm. Already, the program has been challenged in court by the statewide teachers union. And it continues to endure criticism from some parent groups, who say it funnels public dollars into private hands.

“With a voucher program like this, we have no guarantee that our most special children will be receiving the services that they deserve,” PTA legislative chair Mindy Gould said.

Lawmakers established the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program earlier this year to help children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and five other categories of profound special needs. It is part of a larger movement to provide parents and students with more choices in education.

Children who are enrolled in district schools are not eligible to participate.

$10,000 scholarships

The scholarships are worth at least $10,000 each, and can also be put into a prepaid college tuition account.

The state has budgeted $18.4million for the program this year, meaning about 1,800 scholarships will be awarded. So far, more than 3,700 parents have started applications, said Doug Tuthill, whose non-profit Step Up for Students oversees the scholarships.

“Despite all the unknowns of a new program and having a short timeline, everyone has come together,” he said.

The parents of children who receive the scholarships won’t get the cash up front. Instead, they will be reimbursed for any expenditures that fit the criteria. The program will begin cutting checks next month, Tuthill said.

Families are already planning how to spend their share.

Mary Kurnik, of Tampa, said the award will make a huge difference for her 12-year-old son John. She wants to use the money to defray the cost of math tutoring and for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, a costly technique used to help kids with autism.

She is considering speech therapy, too.

“The co-pays have been very expensive,” she said. “This will take some of the stress and strain off the family budget.”

Controversial

The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program has come a long way since it was first proposed in the Legislature.

via New voucher program helps Florida students with special needs | The Miami Herald.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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