Gardiner Scholarship: A Game Changer for Homeschooling Children with Special Needs

We often hear from parents of children with special needs who homeschool because the public school system was failing to meet their children’s educational needs. Despite the challenges and financial burden of educating a special needs child at home, the overwhelming majority of these parents report tremendous success and progress. The one-on-one care and attention, the pure desire to help their children succeed, and the resourcefulness of parents are a few factors that make homeschooling a successful option for special needs students.

In Florida, parents homeschooling children with special needs can now apply for The Gardiner Scholarship (formerly called the PLSA), which helps families customize educational plans for their children with certain special needs.

There is a cap on the amount of scholarships that can be awarded, so if you, or someone you know, is homeschooling a special needs child, the time to apply for this scholarship is immediately. Scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

The PLSA, as the Gardiner Scholarship was originally called, was introduced by FL Representative Michael Bileca (R) from Miami. A homeschooling father, Bileca sponsored legislation during the 2014 legislative session that allowed the parents of children with severe disabilities to have “personalized learning accounts” that could be used “to pay for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials or services such as applied behavior analysis, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.”

“One of the things you see is how much these families struggle. They know what their child needs,” said Bileca in a Miami Herald article from March 2014.

There is no cost to apply for the scholarship, and it is not income-based. The scholarship does not require any additional requirements than what the Florida homeschool law requires.

Julian uses his scholarship to attend classes at a Montessori academy for deaf children.

The PLSA is available for qualified Florida students beginning at age 3 through 22 or high school graduation, or whichever comes first. To qualify, students must be diagnosed with one of the following:

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • muscular dystrophy
  • Prader-Willi syndrome
  • spina bifida
  • Williams syndrome
  • intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment).

Also, Students who are in kindergarten, who are deemed “high risk” due to developmental delays, and who are not older than 5 on Sept. 1 may be eligible for the year they are applying.

In 2014-2015, the scholarship amount was $10,000 per child, but that amount may increase after the next legislative session. If the family does not use all the money by the end of the year, the money rolls over from one year to the next.

The Gardiner Scholarship allows parents to direct scholarship funds toward a combination of approved programs and providers that they think best meets their children’s unique needs. These include approved private schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology— even a college savings account. The funds are provided in the form of reimbursements.

As of July 1st, the state has nearly tripled the size of the scholarship program and expanded eligibility to include 3- and 4-year-olds. It also has expanded the autism definition to include the entire autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger’s, and added children with muscular dystrophy.

There are two scholarship disbursement organizations that are authorized to award the scholarships: Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation.

Step Up for Students is currently accepting applications for the PLSA for the 2015-16 school year. Scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. To apply for the PLSA for the 2015-16 school year, families may click here.

Planning ahead: Families interested in the PLSA special needs scholarship for the 2016-17 school year are encouraged to sign up for our interest list to receive notifications as to when we will begin accepting PLSA applications for the 2016-17 school year. To sign up to receive notifications from Step Up for Students, please click here.

Updates on the Gardiner Scholarship will be posted below:

The Gardiner Scholarship Program (SB 672)  (Became law on 1-21-16)

  • Expand the disabilities included in the program to include high-risk 3- and 4- year old children and those with muscular dystrophy.
  • Expands the definition of autism to autism spectrum disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association.
  • Increases the funding for this program from $53.4 million in 2015-16 to $73.3 million in 2016-17 to accommodate the potential increase in students participating in the program.
  • Creates The Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program and Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities. The purpose is to increase independent living, inclusive and experiential postsecondary education, and employment opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities through degree, certificate, or non-degree programs and to establish statewide coordination of the dissemination of information regarding programs and services for students with disabilities. It is the intent of the Legislature that students with intellectual disabilities and students with disabilities have access to meaningful postsecondary education credentials and be afforded the opportunity to have a meaningful campus experience.

About 

A homeschooling mother of 5, home education advocate, and former classroom teacher. She is a writer, blogger, and poet. "I just want to encourage, and be encouraged. Inspire, and be inspired. Teach a little, and learn a lot," is her approach to life.

Lupe Tucker

A homeschooling mother of 5, home education advocate, and former classroom teacher. She is a writer, blogger, and poet. "I just want to encourage, and be encouraged. Inspire, and be inspired. Teach a little, and learn a lot," is her approach to life.

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