Fate of program for disabled children rests with Rick Scott

RICK SCOTT bill signing

Debby Dawson, who lives in southwest Florida, has a simple message to Gov. Rick Scott: The state’s existing scholarship program for disabled children is “life changing” and has helped her 7-year-old autistic son “develop by leaps and bounds.”

Dawson is part of a chorus of parents from around the state who have mounted a campaign through letters, emails and phone calls urging the Republican governor to sign a sweeping education bill that will soon come to his desk.

But that same bill has sparked an outpouring of an even larger negative reaction to Scott both directly and on social media.

School superintendents, the state’s teacher union, parent-teacher groups and Democrats have called on the governor to veto the bill. Even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, called the legislation a “train wreck” on Tuesday and said Scott should take a “hard look” at vetoing the bill.

That’s because GOP legislators crafted the 300-page bill largely in secret, and included in it portions that would steer more state and local money to privately-run charter schools. The legislation (HB 7069) also mandates recess in elementary schools, expands virtual education courses to private and home schooled students, and tweaks Florida’s testing system.

Scott, who supported the creation of the scholarship program, has not yet said what he plans to do.

But if he vetoes the bill, however, he will wipe out an extra $30 million for the Gardiner Scholarship program that provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students. Legislators included $73 million in the state budget for scholarships, but those who operate the program say it is growing and they may not have enough money to serve everyone without the extra money. Additionally, legislators passed a separate bill that would expand those eligible for the program.

That’s why Dawson wrote Scott asking him to sign the bill. She said without the extra money her other son – who is about to turn 3-years-old – may not get a scholarship in the coming year.

“As a parent who has seen how life changing this grant is, and knowing my second child may not have the same opportunities as my oldest, it is heartbreaking, to say the least,” Dawson wrote in an email to a reporter. “This grant opens up doors for our children where the doors were once shut and locked tight.”

Legislative leaders have not given a detailed explanation on why they put the extra money for the scholarship program in the bill, which was not released publicly until two days before a final vote. Initially, the state Senate had more than $100 million in its budget for the program but then agreed to lower it during budget negotiations.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the budget chairman, said the decision to include the money in the bill and not the budget was at the urging of House Speaker Richard Corcoran. When asked Corcoran called it a “compromise” since the House did not include the higher amount in its initial budget.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat opposed to the bill, argued that legislative leaders crafted the legislation this way in order to make it harder for Scott to veto the bill.

“I was deeply disturbed that (the families of disabled children) were hijacked and used as pawns to mollify opposition to an otherwise bad bill,” Farmer said.

School choice advocates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, are asking Scott to sign the bill. Former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome and helped create the program, said he hopes the “governor is mindful” that the bill isn’t just about charter schools and that many families will be affected by his decision.

Barbara Beasley, whose 9-year-old daughter receives a Gardiner scholarship, says it has dramatically improved her daughter’s life, but she said that “lawmakers sold us down the river with their backroom dealing on the education bill.” She said other parts of the legislation are detrimental to public schools and should be stopped.

“I beg Governor Scott to order lawmakers back to session to fix their mistakes, separate these items from the bad and push them through,” Beasley said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Gary Fineout


  • Donna Mace

    May 24, 2017 at 9:05 am

    If HB7069 is vetoed, lawmakers can return to Tallahassee and deal with all the components of this train bill individually and correctly. Gardiner Scholarship funding should never be used to force the governor’s signature on this horrendous bill.

  • Rebecca Rayborn

    May 24, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    I understand the profound, negative effect that Dawson is concerned about, but she needs to read the entire bill and understand that her particular issues (funding) were included in order to provoke her specific response to it, which is to ask Scott to approve it. That is the same reason they also included the recess item. Dawson and others who are singularly focused on only what benefits them from this bill need to understand that a veto will force the legiskature to breakdown this bill and address each item as they should have done from the start. There is much more at stake than the scholarships of which she is concerned. They lumped everything together as a means to an end, which is to push through their goal of the continued privatization of public education. Understand that if they achieve that goal, I am confident that one of the first items that will be stricken will be those special needs scholarships, and the money will be funneled into those for-profit charter schools run by corporations. This bill continues to devalue and underfund public education and promote for-profit charters; it continues to devalue educators by funding bonuses based on ridiculous criteria instead of paying them yearly raises; it does nothing to remedy the over-testing of Florida’s students; and much, much more. And don’t get me started on the fact that the legislature wants to destroy educators’ rights to collectively bargain better working conditions and better wages while they reassure firefighters and law enforcement officers that they will always have collective bargaining. Since when is it right or even lawful to single out one specific group of public employees (teachers) and deny them the rights they so readily offer to the other groups of public employees (cops and firefighters among others)? (And everybody wants to know why teachers leave this state or profession and enrollment for education degrees have exponentially decreased.)

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