Scholarship for Florida Special Needs Students Debuts, With Criticism

The Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) will be available starting this Friday for parents whose children have one of eight significant special needs.

Parents of children in kindergarten through grade 12 can apply for the PSLA, allowing them to individualize their child’s education through a variety of options, including private schooling, speech and occupational therapists, and specialized curriculum and materials.  There is also an option for contributions to a prepaid college fund.

The PSLA will benefit children who have been diagnosed with a specific learning disability – including autism, Down syndrome, Spina bifida, Prader-Willi syndrome and Williams syndrome.

The cost of services for one child can reach $60,000 per year, with therapy typically costing $150 per hour.

The scholarship will help parents “meet some of their educational responsibilities and give their kids a fighting chance,” said Denise Herschberg, Florida director for Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities. “There’s a tremendous need, especially for parents who want them in a specialized classroom or a Jewish environment.”

Funds given will be based on the cost of living in each of the 67 counties within Florida.  Public school spending was also a factor in reaching the scholarship amount.

The scholarships for 2014-2015 will be worth about $10,000.

“This scholarship will make all the difference in the world,” said Dorothy Famiano of Brooksville, who has two children who are eligible for the scholarship accounts – Nicholas, who has Spina bifida, and Danielle, 11, who has been diagnosed with autism.

The PLSA will allow students to continue to receive payments until they graduate from high school, or reach age 22 with the capability to roll over funds from year to year.  The account will remain until the child graduates from post-secondary education, or has not attended such an institution for four consecutive years.

“Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts are an enormous vote in favor of truly providing an individualized education for children who have unique abilities in the state of Florida,” said Christine Bancalari, co-founder of the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida. “Allowing parents to customize their children’s education to their individual needs is a win-win for all. The impact that this has on a child’s educational success will translate into more opportunities for their future success as an adult in the community.”

Florida’s largest teachers union, The Florida Education Association, filed a lawsuit against the new PLSA law in June, claiming the scholarship is merely a voucher program taking money away from public education, writes David Schwartz for The Sun-Sentinel.

The state has budgeted $18.4 million for the first year of the program, which is expected to serve about 1,800 students.

Parents will be able to apply through Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helped to administer the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.  In order to be eligible, children must have an official diagnosis from a licensed physician or an “Individual Education Plan” from a Florida school district.

Students entering kindergarten who are considered “high risk” are eligible for the scholarship as well.

Florida Senator Andy Gardiner, whose son has Down syndrome, created the scholarship.