What You Need to Know About School Options
by Dr. Ilene Wilkins, President/CEO, UCP of Central Florida

As a parent of student with a disability, you know that your child has unique abilities and needs. Sometimes, these needs are not able to be met in a traditional public school. Luckily, we live in the state of Florida where there are many choices and options for students with disabilities. These include tuition-free Charter Schools and the McKay and Gardiner Scholarship programs.

Each choice option is different and there are many important factors to consider. In order to use any of these options, you would be withdrawing from your local traditional public school. Please note you are only eligible to use one “choice” option (i.e. you can’t attend a Charter School and also use a Gardiner Scholarship). Here is some additional basic information on each option as well as considerations:

Charter Schools are non-profit agencies operating an innovative public school. There are 646 charter schools located throughout Florida educating over 280,000 students. There are different kinds of Charter Schools including schools specifically focused on a type of disability (i.e. autism) or a unique approach (i.e. focus on arts). Generally, charter schools are smaller than a local neighborhood school. Not all charter schools are the appropriate placement for all exceptionalities and the charter school will work with the IEP team to determine if it is the appropriate placement.

Tuition is 100% free and all services on your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) are required to be provided. This is an important consideration when comparing against the scholarship programs which potentially could have additional costs. Additionally, students with disabilities attending charter schools and their parents retain all rights and protections under Part B of IDEA that they would have if attending other public schools.

Charter Schools are monitored through their local school district and have accountability similar to other public schools (i.e. students take state testing, the school has performance goals, teachers are required to be certified, etc.). In general, you can apply for admission in any Charter School in your school district/county where you live. In 2017, new legislation allowed your child to attend any charter school regardless of where you live (if space allows). Charter Schools do have enrollment caps and a random lottery can take place if more students than openings exist. Each School District website will list the charter schools in that district. For more information: www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/charterschools/links-for-parents

Another option for students with disabilities is private schools funded by one of the scholarship/voucher programs (McKay or Gardiner). There is different eligibility and funding amounts based on the respective scholarship. However, in order to use either of these scholarships–the child must withdraw and not be enrolled in public school (either traditional public school or Charter School). Another important note is that the School District is no longer obligated to provide the student with a free appropriate public education and generally the student does not retain rights and protections under Part B of IDEA.

There are many private schools throughout Florida focusing on educating different kinds of disabilities using various approaches and service models. Additionally, scholarships can also be used at traditional private schools. However, for any of the scholarships to be used for funding, the private school must enroll and be approved by State of Florida Department of Education. Private schools are independent schools and are generally not mandated by law to follow/provide the services such as therapy services from the Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program was originally created in 1999 and provides scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice. In general, a student who has had an IEP or a 504 plan and attended a Florida public school (traditional or charter) during the two previous FTE survey counts (October and February) are eligible. The amount of the scholarship is based on the student’s Matrix number and equal to the amount the public school would have received or the amount of the private school’s tuition and fees, whichever is less. The scholarship may not cover the full costs of private school. Parents are responsible for any tuition or fees above the scholarship amount.

The Parents may file intent to participate in the McKay Scholarship Program on the www.floridaschoolchoice.org website by clicking on the McKay Scholarships link and then the link titled “Apply for a McKay Scholarship” located on the quick navigation bar on the left-hand side of the screen. Once your student has been accepted in the McKay scholarship, he/she is eligible to continue (unless they return to public school).

Florida Gardiner Scholarship Program (formerly known as PLSA) is an annual scholarship that provides parents/guardians of children with specific disabilities the opportunity to meet the individual needs of their eligible children. The name honors Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, who led the legislative effort to create the program, and his family (including his with son with Down Syndrome). This scholarship depends on annual legislative funding, so it is not automatically renewable. The amount is approximately $10,000 a year (based on what county you live in).

The Gardiner Scholarship is different than other state scholarships in that it allows parents to personalize the education of their children by directing money toward a combination of programs and approved providers. These could include private school tuition, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or a college savings account. To qualify, a student must have one of the following disabilities: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, an intellectual disability, Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, Williams Syndrome or a high-risk child as defined in s. 393.063(23)(a), F.S.

Parents apply to for the Gardiner Scholarship through an eligible non-profit scholarship funding organization that is administering the program. www.fldoe.org/schools/schoolchoice/k-12-scholarship-programs/sfo/

Dr. Ilene Wilkins is the CEO of UCP of Central Florida–an agency that provides a variety of school choice options including Charter Schools and Scholarship programs. Dr. Wilkins has served as a national and statewide leader in the field of disabilities and is currently the Chairman of the Florida Interagency Coordinating Council for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities for Early Steps.