Florida Special-Needs Choice Program Expands

Published July 13, 2015

The 2015–16 Florida budget will expand the state’s Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program.

The budget, signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) in June, increases funding of the PLSA program from $18.4 million to $54.3 million. The new budget also creates a separate fund for a 3 percent administrative allowance of the total scholarships awarded by a scholarship organization for administrative fees and operations, according to Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager at Step Up for Students. Step Up for Students is one of the scholarship organizations that processes applications and works with families participating in the PLSA program.

Due to related legislation, eligibility now includes three- and four-year-olds with diagnoses covered by the program. Students with muscular dystrophy and anywhere on the autism disorder spectrum will also be eligible. Previously, the state used a nonmedical definition of autism that potentially excluded some autistic students. Part-time tutoring will now be an approved expense for children enrolled full-time as private school or homeschool students.

Brandon Berman is 17 years old and is one of the students participating in the PLSA program. Brandon is autistic and has muscular dystrophy, seizures, spastic paraplegia, and a feeding tube, and he is most likely going to die from a brain tumor. He also has an unwavering desire to learn, and his parents have fought to make sure he gets that opportunity.

“He has a fatal diagnosis,” his mother, Donna Berman, said. “As long as he wants to learn and as long as I can give an education to him, I will.”

Florida’s PLSA program is an education savings account for special-needs students. Parents initially pay for approved educational services and then are reimbursed. Funding provided through the program can pay for everything from instructional materials to curriculum to approved specialized services and therapies.

Other Options Insufficient

The Berman family of Port Orange has tried almost every educational option available to special-needs students in Florida.

“We’ve tried all the routes of the school,” said Berman, an licensed practical nurse by trade who has taught and cared for her son since his health began to decline. “We did the McKay Scholarship. We tried homebound options more than once. But four hours a week—four hours total of direct instruction with a teacher—it’s just not enough.” 

The PLSA program allows Berman to tailor Brandon’s education. She can teach him while they wait in doctors’ offices. Berman says she has been successful in stretching the funding and making it cost-effective because she carefully determines how to spend it.

“We learned all about fabric and then learned math and science through the sewing machine,” said Berman. “We’ve grown gardens. All the schools said he would never learn to read. They kept asking me why I continued to request a reading specialist and said he would never learn to read. Little did I know he knew how to read; he was just intimidated by the number of words on a page.”

Through a process of trial and error, Berman enlarged the size of the text on Brandon’s e-reader so the words took up about what would normally appear on a quarter of a page.

PLSA Program ‘An Incredible Gift’

The flexibility provided by the PLSA program is crucial for Brandon, says Berman.

“For Brandon, if he has an up day, I can give him a lot of work,” said Berman. “If he is having a down day on a weekday, we switch to another mode.

“It’s unfortunate that the public school system doesn’t see that not every child can be supported in a classroom,” said Berman.

Berman says she knows there are good, hardworking teachers in many public schools, but she says the education system leaves some students prejudged and less attended to.

“The PLSA has been an incredible gift,” said Berman. “It’s got great potential for children like mine who don’t fit into a specific program designed for special-needs students.”

Gibbons says the program has been very successful. He hopes to eventually pay the funding outright rather than having parents wait for reimbursement. This year, Step Up for Students administered accounts for 1,665 students.

“The whole point of the program is to give parents a chance to customize the education for their children,” said Gibbons. “The one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. That’s especially true with kids as unique as these kids are.” 

Brandon’s Educational Progress

“I’ve seen him stand up taller,” said Berman. “I’ve seen him take pride again. It’s almost as if he didn’t feel he could succeed. He’s much more comfortable being included in things.”

Berman says there are misconceptions about the PLSA program.

“It’s not taking jobs away from people,” said Berman. “It’s not. It’s helping children. My son cannot be stuck in a caveman system when he has Space Age problems. We’re not making the schools go broke. It’s the same funding that would have been used for my son anyway, and now I have the funding to help him.

“No, he won’t be able to walk across a stage like other students,” Berman said. “He won’t be able to collect a diploma with his peers, but his peers never really knew him because of the way the system is set up. He can just become the best him. And he does matter.” 

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.