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DeSantis Announces Plan To Eliminate Scholarship Waitlist For Special Needs Students

First Lady Casey DeSantis and Gov. Ron DeSantis speak with a student at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.
First Lady Casey DeSantis and Gov. Ron DeSantis speak with a student at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday in Jacksonville he wants to get rid of the waitlist that nearly 2,000 students that have applied for a state special needs scholarship are on.

DeSantis’ was joined first Lady Casey DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at the North Florida School of Special Education where he shared his intentions to eliminate the Gardiner program waitlist, as part of his $91.3 billion budget proposal.

“When you’re to figure out what to budget for, I look for proven success. And I think what we’ve seen with the Gardiner program is proven success,” he said. “I think parents who need to find that good environment for their kids, and every child’s needs is different, have been able to find it using Gardiner Scholarship”

The scholarship program, which is administered through the nonprofit Step Up For Students, gives parents with special needs children financial aid they can use for private schools or a host of state-approved programs and services.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the Gardiner scholarship can be used for a variety of things, including speech or occupational therapy; instructional materials; and a college prepaid account. The average scholarship amount is $10,418 per student.

Desantis touted the program for the flexibility it gives parents and said if the Legislature passes his budget it would be fully funded for the next academic year.

“As we’ve met with people and talked with people about these very valuable scholarships, the fact of the matter is we have close to 2,000 who are on the waiting list for the Gardiner Scholarship,” he said. “I have allocated enough funds to get rid of the waitlist for Gardiner Scholarships entirely.”

Currently, there are nearly 12,000 students who participate in the program, which has a budget of more than $124 million. DeSantis wants to allocate another $18.7 million to get rid of the waitlist.     

Brittney Wilson is the parent of two special needs kids currently on the waiting list.   

“Just having this scholarship just opens our world,” said the mother of three. “It just allows me to have the confidence and the hope that I can do what’s best for them, whether it’s at home or whether it’s at a private school.”  

Wilson said she’s chosen to homeschool her children and that comes with a lot of costs.

Unlike the McKay Scholarship, which is another state funded scholarship for students with disabilities, Gardiner offers parents individualized education options, including homeschooling.

Tom Crass has a son that attends the North Florida School of Special Education. He said his son, who had previously attended private school, wasn’t eligible for the McKay Scholarship, but the Gardiner Scholarship pays for about two-thirds of his tuition.  

“The Gardiner Scholarship is a win-win for both the families for who want to send their children to North Florida and other schools like it and for the schools themselves, as these schools have been able to grow and accommodate even more,” he said.

The North Florida School of Special Education, which opened its doors in 1992, currently has 222 special needs students and young adults in its post-graduate program. To meet the growing demands, the school has a 32,000 square foot building expansion underway that would double enrollment.  

Corcoran thanked Step Up Students for designing the Gardiner program.    

“Human dignity comes from a great education and everybody deserves that and should be afforded that,” he said.   

DeSantis’ $93.1 billion dollar budget proposal, which includes $26 billion for education, now awaits debate in the Legislature. The annual legislative session will start March 5.

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