Passed by the Florida legislature on the last day of the session and enacted in June, Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts help families of children with special-needs—defined in the statute as those with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome or Intellectual Disability (severe cognitive impairment), along with some kindergarten students deemed “high risk” because of developmental delays—fully tailor their child’s education.
Modeled after the Arizona ESA option, the state deposits an amount equal to 90 percent of its per-pupil spending statewide into an education savings account parents then can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, curricula for home schooling, therapy, textbooks and special-education services.
“We find it ironic that the state wants to move these students with disabilities to unaccountable private providers,” writes Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall in the Tampa Tribune. But education savings accounts create the strongest possible form of accountability: education providers responsive to parents who are able to choose where to direct their resources.
The FEA does not claim the program itself is unconstitutional; rather it contends the legislative process in which the bill was passed did not follow procedure.
The PLSA proposal did not pass as a standalone measure in the legislature. But when rolled into legislation that covered a variety of educational matters, it was approved.
In its lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, FEA contends the SB 850—the law that enshrined PLSAs—violates the state constitutional requirement that “every law shall embrace but one subject… and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title,” because it contains multiple subjects not expressed in the bill’s title.
“There is a single subject for this bill and that single subject is education — particularly education for a variety of kids who have special needs or other educational disadvantages. That is the unifying theme of this bill, SB 850.”
The number of applications received for the scholarship suggests there is high demand for ESAs in Florida. According to Florida’s Step Up for Students, the organization managing the application process for the new PLSA option, over 1,100 Florida families have already applied for an account.
“To hear about this scholarship was very exciting for us,” said Alisha Sloan, mother of PLSA applicant Christopher. “With Christopher, you know, there are different things that you need, software, adaptive curriculum, different therapies that would definitely help.”
Julie Kieffel’s 7-year-old daughter, Faith, is also a PLSA applicant. Faith has Down Syndrome and wasn’t receiving the attention that she needed in public school. Florida’s PLSA will allow Faith to maintain the therapies that have worked well for her, while also allowing Julie to augment them with additional physical or occupational therapies.
“The right combination of support can help unlock education opportunities, and parents know what combination is best for their kids… PLSAs will be life-changing for my family and potentially thousands of others in our state,” Julie says.
The Goldwater Institute has filed a motion to intervene in the FEA lawsuit on behalf of five Florida families of children with special needs— including Julie Kieffel. While FEA’s counsel considers the personal learning accounts “a collateral casualty” in the lawsuit, this is not the case for thousands of Florida families who are looking to give their children the best education possible this school year through the customized learning that Florida’s personal learning accounts will provide.