By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Jan. 21. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
With Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, Florida’s newest educational choice program has a new name, and will be able to serve more students.
Legislative leaders joined Gov. Rick Scott after he approved legislation aimed at helping people with special needs.
Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 on Jan. 21 during a ceremony in the governor’s office.
The new law increases funding for the Gardiner Scholarship program by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.
The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.
Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.
In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”
“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.
Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)
“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
Step Up For Students is pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) program for the 2016-17 school year. Click on the Login link to access your parent login area and submit an application for the upcoming school year.
A few things to note as you access the online application:
• Reimbursement requests for previous and current school years can still be accessed as you fill out the online application for the 2016-17 school year. Simply use the tabs at the top of the pages of the parent login to navigate between activities.
• As you renew your application, there may be limited documentation that is needed for Step Up to review the application. In the event that less documents are requested than in previous years, please follow directions and fax or upload only those documents requested via the “Print and Send Documents” tab.
• Remember, you must renew your scholarship each year to receive funding from the Department of Education. We expect to receive funding for eligible students for the 2016-17 school year in the early Fall for use on expenses incurred after July 1, 2016.
Step Up is happy to help should you have any questions or concerns about the online application process. Please direct questions to us via phone at 877-735-7837 or email at email@example.com.
Families who are interested in the PLSA for the current school year and meet the eligibility requirements may still apply for the 2015-16 school year. Average annual scholarships are about $10,000 per student.
Step Up For Students Family and Community Affairs (FCA) team recently began hosting “Coffee and Conversations” events with Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) recipients’ parents, kicking off the program on Sept. 30 in Tallahassee, the state capital.
Since then, the team has met with parents in St. Petersburg and Jacksonville, and plans to bring the program to other areas throughout Florida.
The PLSA program, which provides funding for children with certain special needs for private school, approved educational tools, therapies and even for college savings, was created by the Florida Legislature in 2014. On average, eligible students receive about $10,000 annually.
The goal of the “Coffee and Conversations” events is for FCA staff to get feedback from PLSA parents on the program including on eligibility and reimbursement processes, use of funds, and for parents to network with other local parents in their area.
“Using that feedback, we will work to make the program better,” said Sara S. Clements, FCA’s director of external affairs. “There is nothing more valuable than hearing directly from parents who are using this program. We are thankful for parents giving us feedback on ways to improve our internal processes, as well as ideas to expand the program legislatively in the future.”
The parent feedback has been positive, Clements said, adding that she said one parent took to Facebook to express her gratitude.
“Loved [Coffee & Conversations]. I got answers to questions, and had the opportunity to meet wonderful staff and fellow parents,” the mother wrote.
The FCA team also uses these meetings as an opportunity to educate parents on the importance of the legislative process, and sharing how they can support the PLSA program by speaking to their elected officials.
The FCA team is hosting additional “Empowerment Trainings” in as a follow-up to Coffee & Conversations, where the focus will be more on parent advocacy, including training on how parents can share their stories with lawmakers and other elected officials.
Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy wants to do what other kids do at school like walk down the hall with friends, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.
He gets all of that and more at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that serves students with special needs.
Because of his disability, Liam qualified for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The state-funded program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the additional dollars – on average, about $10,000 a year per child – from approved options.
Liam’s scholarship covers Morning Star’s annual $9,850 tuition and another $855 in dues and fees for books, technology, speech evaluations and more. Money left over can go toward future expenses, including college. Families are eligible based on their children’s need, not household income.
The PLSA is one of two statewide programs Step Up helps manage. The other is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), an income-based program serving low-income children in Florida. Since 2002, individuals and corporations have contributed more than $2 billion toward the FTC, providing more than 480,000 scholarships.
Both programs are designed to alleviate education expenses so families can focus on helping their kids not just survive, but thrive.
“When you have a child with special needs, you want them to be the best they can be,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with husband Trey, a sales director for a medical device company, and their children, Liam, daughter Sydney, 8, and son Laine, 2 ½. “Kids with special needs need more.’’
Liam attended two other private schools before the family enrolled him in Morning Star.
“I knew the school was really special,’’ Stacey Thomas said. “I felt so thankful that we could afford it.’’
But during that first year, the couple started to feel strained financially while paying tuition to send Sydney to a private school in Tampa that worked well for her. At the same time, the Thomases were caring for an infant at home.
That’s when Morning Star Principal Sue Conza told them about the PLSA, approved in 2014.
Liam’s parents were making all the sacrifices they could, Conza said. But when you have a child with special needs, there are “layers and layers’’ of unforeseen expenses. Especially for future needs.
Will Liam go to college or need job training? Will he live independently? How much will all of that cost and what impact will it have on his siblings?
“We have to save for that and think about all of those things,’’ Stacey Thomas said.
For now, Liam is progressing as a third-grader at Morning Star, where he’s challenged daily and continues to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally. He loves to read and performs at grade level, working on his reading comprehension with a personalized learning plan. He also enjoys music and art.
“He’s making academic progress, but at his own speed and in his own time,’’ Conza said.
The PLSA gave the Thomases the flexibility to choose the learning environment they believed best met Liam’s needs.
“I applaud the government for providing this program,’’ Trey Thomas said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the scholarship.’’
Editor’s Note: This post originally ran Oct. 23 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education. Travis Pillow attended the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit in Denver earlier this week.
DENVER – There were more than a few wet eyes in a room full of education reform advocates when Katie Swingle told her story of finding the right school for her son.
After learning a traditional public-school setting wouldn’t work, she found a specialized private school that could help her son overcome autism, dyslexia, and speech apraxia. She now has hope he’ll return to public school one day.
On Thursday, Swingle, who has also wowed Florida legislators with her story, said that as states expand educational choice for students with special needs, other parents’ stories might be different from hers.
While she used a Personal Learning Scholarship Account through Step Up For Students to send her son to a school that gave him the support he needed, she said other parents might send their children to a more traditional school, but use their education savings accounts to pay for therapies like applied behavior analysis, or other educational expenses.
“Every kid needs something different,” she said during a discussion of education savings accounts at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit in Denver. “We needed Woodland Hall [Academy].”
As more parents start using educational choice accounts to pay for things beyond school tuition, it raises other questions — and possibilities. It’s hard enough to provide a clear, agreed-upon measure of school quality. But it might be even harder to attribute test scores, learning gains or graduation rates to therapeutic programs, tutors, or groups of parents who purchase curriculum and help their children learn at home.
Adam Peshek, school choice policy director for the Foundation of Excellence in Education, said test scores might help parents track the progress of their children, but to judge the quality of various education providers, states might need to try something different.
“Have parents be required to rate their experience with vendors,” he said. “Let’s use what they know to create real accountability.”
Swingle said many parents, especially those with special needs children, are making active decisions about their children’s education already.
“We have to put more faith in parents,” she said. Not every parent might have the expertise to comparison-shop among curriculum providers or drive across town to check out schools. “But that’s where we have each other. The poorest, least-educated autism mom is on Facebook.”
The challenge, then, is giving these parents the tools to make the most informed decisions possible.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as an article in the 2015 Back to Homeschool issue of the FPEA Connect magazine. Used by permission of the FPEA.
By Mary Kurnik, Guest Blogger
We did not plan to homeschool. I definitely enjoy being home with our children, especially since my husband and I weren’t even sure we would become parents.
Through the blessing of adoption, we became parents to our daughter and, 21 months later, to our son who has autism. Thankfully, we began homeschooling when Krystyn was four years old. We figured this way, we could “try it out” for a year and send her to kindergarten if the experiment failed.
John was two years old at the time. He did well with Five in a Row, a literature-based, unit study approach. We all snuggled on the couch while I read our story for the day. If John chose, he could sit on the floor and keep busy with various shoeboxes filled with his “school things.” For the most part, though, he wanted to be a part of every aspect of our homeschool day, right along with his big sister. All the years of Five in a Row provided a solid foundation for a well-rounded child and built strength in reading and language arts.
An environment of family togetherness, safety and comfort at home, and learning at his own pace, have served John well. In the early years, our homeschool days consisted of many trips to the library to choose books, take part in its organized programs, and star in its theater. We went to parks and the YMCA. We belonged to MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and a Thursday social group. We took trips to the museums, the zoo, the Florida Aquarium, and Busch Gardens. We visited many businesses to get a backstage tour in order to learn about their operations and the necessity of a practical education. We toured Tampa International Airport, fire departments, even the Coast Guard. All of these opportunities were facilitated in a small, manageable group, with Mom’s watchful eye, giving birth to independence and confidence for John.
I can’t emphasize enough how important the flexibility has been. If John is restless, he can play basketball in our driveway in between subjects or throw the ball in the backyard to our
rambunctious, loveable lab, Libby. We school year round, so if family comes in town or an event comes up, we can take advantage of that opportunity. For John’s therapy appointments, professionals are more accessible to us during the morning or early afternoon, rather than after-school hours. If John needs more time learning long division, it’s not a problem. If we need to revisit a concept in a particular subject six months from now, when he can grasp it better, no worries.
Every day is a learning opportunity at home and out in the world. Life skills are essential for John, and my husband and I endeavor to teach him more than academics. John is learning to change the oil in Dad’s truck, shop at home improvement stores, do yardwork, fix and maintain things at home, learn the value of money – all with Dad’s guidance. Mom, on the other hand, does something John calls “Mom’s Scenarios.” This is when a teachable moment comes along, no matter where we happen to be, and I run by certain scenarios with John – all the while keeping a sense of humor if warranted, or a serious tone if not. John often needs a further explanation of what is happening around him, and we are able to take the time to explain as much as he needs.
Homeschooling also allows John to be with children and adults of all ages. He is not limited to his same-aged peer group. This has been beneficial in that he is able to get along with children during his class at co-op and is also able to be best buddies with the younger set. They look up to him, and I believe John’s life is enhanced by being a role model. Learning at home allows us to build on John’s strengths and work on his weaknesses in a way that is designed for him alone.
More recently, John’s home education has been strengthened by a new state program created last year. The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or PLSA as it is better known, provides state funds to parents of special needs children that can be used for a wide range of education-related expenses. That includes private school tuition, tutoring, instructional materials, technological devices and specialized therapies from approved providers.
The amount of the PLSA varies based on the student’s disability and what county he or she lives in, but it averages about $10,000 per year. Funds that aren’t used in one year can be rolled over to the next year. They can also be used for contributions to an approved prepaid college program. As I told the The Tampa Tribune last year, “It’s hard to put into words what it means to us. It’s a gift that was dropped from heaven.”
It’s not just that the PLSA offers funding that can make a real difference for John. It also comes with the kind of flexibility and parental authority that makes sense to home school parents, and to parents, period. It allows parents, not anyone else, to determine what mix of educational programs and services are best for their child.
Right now, we are using the PLSA to help pay for therapy to help John with an auditory processing disorder, along with books, and handwriting and keyboarding programs. We also plan to add, among other things, intensive math skills practice online, materials for robotics, a musical instrument, and a tablet so John can access specialized apps for students with autism. (For anyone who wants more information about PLSAs, contact Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the program, at PLSA@sufs.org or 1-877-735-7837.)
Educational choice is a precious freedom, and I am grateful to be Krystyn and John’s Mom first and teacher second. Sometimes the best things in life are not planned after all.
Mary Kurnik is wife to John and has a bachelor’s degree in English education. Her passions are homeschooling, special needs, adoption and horses. She gives all glory to God for His master plan. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.