Florida is becoming as well known for its education as its sunshine, and the state’s newest educational choice option is gaining national attention from states looking for common-sense, customizable solutions for students.
During Florida’s 2014 Legislative Session, lawmakers created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) Program, allowing parents of students with certain disabilities to create a customized education plan by choosing the school, services and therapies that fit the needs of their child. PLSAs offer moms and dads the flexibility and freedom to provide their children with a high-quality, individualized education.
Julie Kleffel of Longwood, Fla., the sole caregiver for her seven-year-old daughter Faith who has Down syndrome, says a PLSA is different from other state scholarships.
“The right combination of support can help unlock education opportunities, and parents know what combination is best for their kids,” said Julie.
In less than a year since the law passed, PLSAs have garnered huge interest from parents. In Florida, more than 6,200 applications have been started, and more than 1,700 scholarships were awarded for the current school year. More than 10,000 applications have been started for the 2015-16 school year.
Arizona became the first state to pass a similar Education Savings Account (ESA) bill in 2011, followed by Florida passing the country’s second program last year and Mississippi’s program becoming a reality just this month. More than 20 state legislatures are pursuing or considering similar ESA programs. These programs take funds that otherwise would be spent educating children in traditional public schools and sets them aside into accounts controlled by parents. The accounts are particularly beneficial for families that have students with disabilities because the funds also can be used for expenses such as therapy and educational aids.
In Florida, parents can choose the educational setting most appropriate for their child while balancing the optimal level of therapies and services for educational success. Unlike a traditional voucher, which can only be used for private school tuition, PLSA dollars can be used for any combination of supports. This means families can use these dollars to pay for tuition and fees at an eligible private school, therapies, tutoring, or instructional materials and curriculum – including electronic devices and assistive technology. Leftover funds at the end of the school year can even be rolled over into a college savings account, encouraging families to spend wisely.
Currently, Florida is working to expand access to the program. Bills in the Florida Legislature would make students on the Autism Spectrum – like those with Asperger’s Syndrome – eligible for a PLSA, not just those diagnosed with Autism. It would also expand this program to students with other disabilities and would increase eligibility to children as young as three years old, since we know the benefits of intervening early with needed therapies greatly increases the chances for more children to achieve educational success.
The Florida Senate spoke strongly in its unanimous passage of Senate Bill 602 recently. Its companion, House Bill 7095, is moving with bipartisan support through the process.
Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts are giving students with special needs opportunities for better outcomes in education and in life. The program has been a blessing and a game changer for many families, and it has the potential to help many more.
Find out what educational choice opportunities are available in your state by exploring www.Excelined.org.
Sara Clements is the Florida Regional Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.