Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he will eliminate the wait list for Gardiner scholarship students at Florida schools–if lawmakers will go along–and he is ready to hand out even more scholarships to get children to private schools if their public school is struggling.
The Gardiner Scholarships are designed to help disabled children go to schools designed for them. The architect of the program, former state Senate President Andy Gardiner, R – Winter Garden, calls them children with unique abilities.
DeSantis stood side by side with the former Senate president, announcing $19 million in his budget would go to eliminate the waiting list for those Gardiner scholarships. Almost 2,000 families are currently on the waiting list.
“I believe that everyone can succeed. We really want to provide opportunities for folks. You look at the people at that school (North Florida School of Special Education), here (Pace Brantley School) who are going to higher education, going into the workforce, doing all of these things. If they did not have these opportunities, they may not be doing any of that. So we need to be there for them, and I am happy to stand up and lead the charge for this,” DeSantis said.
The Pace Brantley School costs students as much as $16,000 a year and it specializes in treating children with learning disorders. The average scholarship statewide for Gardiner recipients is more than $11,000 but it does not all go towards tuition. Some parents use the money for things like speech therapy or other treatments tailored to their children’s needs. That’s a key component, and the governor emphasized that flexibility when asked about adding more accountability to tax dollars going to charter schools.
“I really do just trust the parents to make the best decision, and I think that is the best oversight we can have,” DeSantis said.
You could gauge the support for school choice in the governor even though he would not directly answer a question about expanding the availability of opportunity scholarships to send more public school kids to private schools. The governor simply said the Gardiner Scholarships work.
“I think it really is not only a great thing for folks who qualify for this program, but I think it is a model that can be used in other areas of educational opportunities,” DeSantis
Last year, DeSantis campaigned hard against Andrew Gillum and that Tallahassee Democrat’s opposition to school choice and charter schools was a major factor in the election. During the campaign, DeSantis constantly trumpeted his own support for non-traditional schools.
When asked directly about more dollars for opportunity scholarships, DeSantis would only say an announcement would come in the next two weeks. He did emphasize his budget priorities in teasing that announcement.
“I’m trying to put the resources where we will have good results,” DeSantis said.
For parents like Karen Revels, the money could not come soon enough. Her six year old son Chancellor was diagnosed with high functioning autism but his public school would not make any special accommodations for him since he was performing well academically. Chancellor is now enrolled in the Walden Community School and on the wait list for a Gardiner scholarship.
Revels said the nine person classroom has done wonders for her son.
“They eat lunch outside, have multiple opportunities to play and wiggle, and it is not chaotic at all,” she said. “His behavior issues at home have almost been eliminated. He is happy to go to school. There isn’t pent up anger and anxiety anymore, and it is all because of his daily environment. We need this scholarship to keep Chancellor in the setting that works best for him.”
Revels told the governor her other two children thrived in public school but Chancellor proved one size cannot fit all students.
Reach Mike Synan at Mike.Synan@floridadaily.com.